What can mediation do for managers?

Managers and organisations are becoming more aware of mediation and its potential uses in helping with those ‘difficult situations’ we all tend to try to avoid, writes Karen Maher.

Karen Maher
Karen Maher

Mediation is a voluntary, collaborative process of conflict resolution. Its aim is to allow parties in dispute the opportunity to address their issues in a safe and confidential environment and reach an amicable solution where ever possible.

Since conflict is now an inevitable part of the employment relationship in both the public and private sector, mediation is a process all managers need to know about and may need to use.  Organisations are made up of people with diverse skills, opinions, values and expectations about their work and so misunderstandings and disagreements are an everyday occurrence.

Managers for the most part tend to be uncomfortable dealing with conflict situations and this may affect their workforce causing low morale and reduced motivation, lack of trust, increased stress, increased absenteeism and ultimately decreased productivity. Complaints and disputes in the workplace that go unnoticed are often left to grow into industrial disputes or damaging court cases bringing negative publicity to organisations and contribute to an increasing lack of confidence in the services provided. It is interesting to note that in 2009 a CIPD Survey found that Irish employees spend on average of three hours each week coping with workplace conflict compared to the international average of two hours. This is clearly a concern which needs to be addressed.

Mediation is widely recognised as a suitable method of dispute resolution in the workplace. It is an informal, confidential, early intervention process that offers a resolution option before resorting to formal procedures or legal processes. A qualified, impartial, mediator manages the process and acts as a catalyst to help those in dispute reach a mutually agreeable solution.

CIPD published another report in 2015 which found that ‘employers are making increased use of mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution to resolve workplace issues’ and around 80% of cases brought to mediation are successfully resolved.

Organisations in Ireland are becoming more aware of the advantages of mediation but there have been delays in introducing this concept into legislation via the Mediation Bill. The Bill was first listed in the 2011 Programme for Government and it has long been acknowledged that its enactment would deliver significant benefits to organisations and businesses across the country. The Mediation Institute of Ireland (MII) has estimated that the legal costs of employment tribunals amounted to €1 billion in 2011. The Chief Clerk of the Dublin Circuit and District Courts ran a pilot mediation programme in 2013 which resulted in over 800 agreements, saving around 11% of court sitting time and an estimated annual savings of €119,000 in courts service costs as well as €225,000 in legal costs. Mediation is clearly a viable process to consider as an option in conflict situations before exploring other more costly means of dispute resolution.

In October 2015 the HSE published a document entitled ‘Creating a Positive Work Environment in our Health Services’. It emphasises the role managers must play to maintain positive working environments by engaging with their teams and promoting a culture of involvement and engagement. It also strongly recommends using mediation to provide early resolution in conflict situations alongside the need for managers to gain the required skills, knowledge and confidence to deal with difficult situations.

The way in which health services and organisations introduce mediation processes is crucial to ensuring their effectiveness in resolving conflict situations. To be successful it requires commitment from managers, support from trade unions and on-going positive communication with staff to raise awareness, instil confidence, promote confidentiality, demonstrate respect and ultimately prove to be beneficial to all parties concerned.

The advantages of using mediation for most people is that it is private and confidential – no-one involved can publicise the fact of or details of the mediation and if for some reason it doesn’t work all other options remain open. Mediation is generally substantially quicker and cheaper than litigation.  The aim is to find a mutually agreeable outcome that will work in practice. By negotiating and agreeing a resolution it is more likely that everyone involved will abide by and comply with the outcome.

So, what can mediation do for you as a manager? Mediation is by no means a universal remedy for all workplace conflict and there will be times when the formal route using HR policies and procedures and legislative options are required. Mediation does however offer an opportunity to find mutually acceptable solutions to problems conducted in a confidential respectful manner. The earlier the mediation process takes place the more likely the chances are of finding a successful outcome acceptable to all concerned and managers can then concentrate on rebuilding relationships and re-establishing more comfortable productive workplaces.

Karen Maher
Karen Maher Associates, Associate Trainer and Consultant with the HMI and Certified Mediator with Mediation Institute of Ireland (MII)