Resolving conflicts at work

Mediation is an effective way of resolving conflicts at work, Maura Keaveney Costello, Director Conflict Management Services, told the HMI West Forum. Maureen Browne reports.

Maura Keaveny Costello
Maura Keaveny Costello

Ms. Keaveney Costello, who established her company 18 years ago, said that Conflict Management Services deals primarily with people, both employers and employees who are caught up in conflict at work.

“There are a number of processes in every work place to help people address and move on from conflict. Unfortunately they often don’t work and people are often left feeling very vulnerable and isolated because of this conflict at work.”

She said her service has provided external Mediators, Investigators and Facilitators to workplaces for many years. “Over the last 18 years we have built up huge experience in acting as mediators and investigators. We have carried out mediations and investigations in a very wide range of workplaces. These have included mediations and investigations under dignity at work policies, disciplinary policies, fraud policies, and many other policies that are part of today’s workplace.

If, as a manager, you are going to advocate mediation, check with the mediator as to exactly what kind of process will be utilised

“One of the things which always surprises me when I meet people who believe they have been subjected to a ‘wrong’ at work is that they generally have two problems. The first problem is the ‘wrong’; that they believe was or is being done to them. The second problem is the ‘wrong’ that they believe management is perpetrating against them by the manner in which their issue is being handled.

“From our point of view we believe that if a member of staff has an issue with another member of staff, that person has the right to pursue their issue in a full and transparent manner. We also believe that the respondent has the right to have everything put to him or her in an equally transparent manner and to be afforded the opportunity to respond. Our experience has been that many processes provided by employers do not tick these boxes. In speaking to health managers what I wanted to get across to them is what it is like to be a ‘party’ to a conflict. Managers are very often not parties to the conflict and it is important that they understand what it is like to be a person embroiled in the conflict with all its negative consequences both personally and otherwise “

Turning specifically to the use of mediation as a process to address and help resolve conflict at work Ms. Keaveney Costello said  “I am always surprised by the fact that more parties in disputes do not take up mediation as an option and in my view the reason that they don’t is because they are not sure what exactly is going to happen during the course of the mediation process  For example, they are not sure if they are going to have to go into a room with the person who, in their view, is giving them grief and have a one to one meeting. They are not sure at what point documentation is going to be given or received, they are not sure if the process will be that of a ‘shuttle mediation,’ where one party is in one room and one in another with the mediator going between them. The list of concerns for parties entering a mediation is significant. The difficulty I see from my private clients’ point of view is that when mediation is offered, or even encouraged, the staff members involved on both sides can be very frightened as they don’t know what to expect. If, as a manager, you are going to advocate mediation check with the mediator as to exactly what kind of process will be utilised and then inform thewould be participants fully. Furthermore managers themselves need to identify what is that they need the mediation process to achieve”

One has to assume that nearly every meeting, confidential or otherwise, is going to be recorded by somebody and mediators need to ask for mobile phones to be placed on the table and switched off before each session commences.

Commenting further on the role of the manager, Ms. Keaveney Costello said “The other thing that needs to be established by the manager and parties involved is whether or not there is going to be a point in the mediation process where the manager needs to come in on the mediation process. You can have two or four people going off with a mediator and agreeing something but if it doesn’t agree with the way the manager runs his or her section it is not going to work. I think there is very often a role for the decision maker at the mediation table. The issue is ensuring that the parties are aware in advance that the manager may be called to the table and secondly establishing at what point in the process the manager comes to the table One must always respect that mediation is a confidential process so in some ways it is contradictory to that confidentiality that a manger might be called .From experience however I am satisfied that it is possible to get over this hurdle ,to get the balance right , through the use of open and transparent engagement from the very beginning of the mediation process.”

Ms. Keaveney Costello said it was also important that parties to mediation knew where the ‘heads of agreement’ that might be reached would end up. “The objective in the process is very often to get a signed agreement but one needs to think about where that agreement will be held. Most likely the manager will want it placed in a personnel file even if only for a number of months. Again the parties need to know in advance that this is a likely outcome and not be surprised by this at the end of the process.

“Then there is the question of a ‘review’ of the heads of agreement. If it has been a successful mediation, parties will often want to meet with the mediator after a period of a few months. They see this as a kind of a safety mechanism to ensure that things are working out well. In some respects this can be very effective for all parties including the manager but the mediator has to know when to get ‘out,’ just as well as the mediator has to know when to get ‘in’. The mediator and manager need to balance the possible positive outcome of a review with the need to ensure that a platform is not provided for further complaint.

“Another ancillary matters that mediators and mangers need to be conscious of is the use of secret recordings. One has to assume that nearly every meeting, confidential or otherwise, is going to be recorded by somebody and mediators need to ask for mobile phones to be placed on the table and switched off before each session commences. I have even had situations where people had second mobile phones to make recordings so clarity on this must be provided at the beginning of each session”.

Ms. Keaveney Costello said that that the entire process from the very first moment that mediation is mooted is about communication, about people knowing what they are getting into and what the expectations and hopes are. Anything less than this can have an impact on staff morale, absenteeism, staff retention and even more importantly the well- being of the person involved in the conflict”.


Conflict Management Services, Co. Galway.
Contact maura@conflictmanagement.ie