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Mediation – what part should it play in helping to resolve workplace disputes?

Mediation already has a key part to play and charities need to aware of the significant contribution it could make towards helping to resolve disputes within the workplace. In 2007 Michael Gibbons was asked to review the area of employment dispute resolution. His review recommended that a free dispute resolution service including mediation be set up to cover disputes in the workplace with the aim of bringing about effective resolution at the earliest stage. Whilst this has not yet happened the government announced a pilot scheme on 23 January 2012 to create two regional “mediation networks” inCambridgeandManchesterfor SMEs. The mediation training is expected to be funded by BIS for employees from a group of 24 SMEs in each pilot area for later this year. There has also certainly been a shift in employer’s perceptions towards the use of mediation. It is now viewed as a very real alternative to litigation or other forms of dispute resolution. The 2008 CIPD survey on workplace mediation showed that 75% of respondents considered mediation to be the most effective approach to resolving conflict in the workplace. What is mediation? Mediation is where an independent third party, the mediator helps the parties in dispute to attempt to reach an agreement. The mediator does not judge upon whether one person is right or wrong. He is only in charge of the process not the outcome. It is ultimately up to the parties not the mediator whether an agreement is reached or not. The distinguishing factors of mediation (when compared with other forms of dispute resolution) are that it is informal, flexible, voluntary, morally but not legally binding, confidential and generally unrepresented. Mediation aims to provide an informal and quick solution to workplace conflict. There are distinct stages in a mediation which literature commonly describes as a three, four or five stage process. Whichever way it is broken down the core elements remain the same. The first stage deals with the parties individually, while the remaining stages will usually be joint sessions. Often there is a requirement to break away into individual sessions during the course of mediation, especially if there is a deadlock. On occasions the mediator may have to move between the parties relaying views and proposals as a more effective way of dealing with the issues in dispute or simply because the parties will not sit in the same room as each other. When can mediation be used? Mediation can be used at any stage in a conflict and can even be used after a formal dispute has been resolved to rebuild relationships. There are of course situations where mediation may not be appropriate, for example a decision about right or wrong is needed, the parties do not have the power to settle the dispute or an individual raises issues which they want investigated. Mediation is particularly suitable in cases of bullying and harassment and perceived discrimination as it allows the parties to see each other’s viewpoint. This invaluable insight helps to resolve misunderstandings and helps to avoid matters escalating to a full-blown dispute leading to formal grievances being lodged and litigation. What are the benefits? According to the 2008 CIPD survey on workplace mediation 83% of respondents considered that the main benefit in using mediation was its effectiveness in improving relationships between individuals. Other benefits included: reducing or removing the stress involved in more formal processes, retaining valuable employees, reducing the amount of formal grievances raised and saving on the cost of defending employment tribunal claims. In regards to the last benefit of saving on the cost of defending employment tribunal claims it was considered by respondents that even if only one tribunal case was avoided as a result of mediation being introduced the organisation would potentially recoup a significant portion of the cost of the scheme’s introduction. How can mediation be implemented? The way a charity goes about introducing mediation arrangements are crucial to their success in resolving internal conflict. This requires a commitment from senior management, an understanding and a willingness of line managers to promote its use and overall staff acceptance of it as a reliable alternative to settling disputes. It also crucially needs the resources to manage any scheme on a continuing basis. There are different options for a charity to introduce mediation: one is to develop an in-house mediation scheme with trained internal mediators. Another possible alternative is to call on the services of an external mediator through one of the accredited organisations such as CEDR or ADR. An internal scheme is likely to demand more upfront investment and may not be a viable option for small charities. However, an external mediator used on a frequent basis may end up costing significantly more in the long run. Irrespective of the scheme used mediation will be most effective if it is embedded into the organisation’s approach to people management and so reflected in the charity’s polices and procedures. This will help to support it as a legitimate means for resolving disputes. In conclusion, mediation is not an absolute remedy for every conflict within the workplace and cannot therefore be a replacement for more formal procedures. However, at the very least charities need to be aware of its obvious benefits and the crucial part it now plays in dispute resolution. Henry Doswell, Associate