With a recent CIPD research report highlighting a shift in the way employers are dealing with conflict, organisations are starting to consider mediation in the workplace. The previous government also championed mediation as a means of tackling relationship issues at work. Yet some employers remain sceptical about involving a mediator or investing in mediation processes. 

We asked Anthony Fincham, Head of our Workplace Mediation Service to suggest when mediation should be used and how the process could help employers. 

Most of us have, at some point in our working life encountered a situation where an issue has escalated and become extremely difficult. That might be for a variety of reasons, but in most cases poor communication will be at the heart of the matter. As the conflict continues parties become polarised and adopt positions where any movement is seen as a concession. Workplace mediation can help to unravel this type of conflict, and can be very effective in resolving the issue and enabling employees to work together. 

Formal workplace mediation is obviously not something that should be considered for every problem at work, and I am very much in favour of empowering managers to resolve issues locally. Good people managers will use a similar skillset to mediators when they are having these difficult conversations. I see mediation skills as an essential tool in the workplace - whether that means training managers or bringing in an external mediator for the more tricky situations. 

So how does a formal mediation work? 

Before a formal mediation day I will have had discussions with the individuals concerned directly to build up trust and make sure that I have all the relevant people either present on the day or at the end of telephone. I encourage them to be open and to put on the table candidly all the issues as they see them. Mediations are normally completed in a day, but may be tackled in a few hours. I prefer to have a neutral venue away from the workplace and different rooms for the parties. The format varies considerably, but I will typically have a series of confidential private meetings to understand the issues before bringing the parties together in a joint meeting to try to work towards solutions, and if possible reach an agreement. 

And why does mediation work? 

It works because the mediator can go beyond the positions of the parties. Discovering shared interests or options to move forward may be the secret to breaking the deadlock. It can be hard work and require a lot of thinking on your feet, but essentially the mediator is managing the process between the parties. In other words it’s a form of facilitated negotiation. I always explain that it’s not my role to tell anyone what to do - it’s up to the parties to work out a solution together. This ability to engage and empower employees in delivering their own solutions makes a lasting settlement more realistic. In order to help it’s important to listen to the parties and try to understand and empathise with their concerns. In a workplace setting you also need to make sure that management views are factored in to any settlement agreement. There’s no point two employees agreeing something that will not be sanctioned by senior management. In some situations mediation may result in one party leaving which might need to be dealt with by a formal settlement agreement, and in other cases the outcome may involve an agreement setting out how the parties will work together in the future. Solutions will vary depending on the issues and the parties, and mediation has the flexibility to respond to different circumstances. With success rates of between 70-80%, it is definitely an option worth considering.