Use mediation in the workplace to ease conflict

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Solving problems is easier when you talk says Graham Boyack

WHEN I first joined the Network, I was aware of the use of mediation in international conflicts like the Middle East, but apart from that the only area I had heard of mediation was in the workplace. I knew someone who had been a party in a workplace dispute that used mediation and had been impressed by the way the process had facilitated people hearing each other’s point of views and in its ability to recognise that the solutions weren’t limited to legal and contractual solutions.

I have now met many workplace mediators, met lawyers involved in employment disputes, met people who work in human resources and people who support employees such as trades unions and advocates. One of the most common comments I’ve heard are that when they have become involved in mediation they use the phrase “I wish I’d had this conversation a while ago”.

I was therefore very interested to see the results of two surveys published within the last few months. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) published “Getting under the skin of workplace conflict: Tracing the experiences of employees” and the Chartered Management Institute published their research “Difficult Conversations”.

The CIPD research, based on a survey of 2,195 UK employees, found that four in ten employees faced conflict of some sort in the workplace with the most common being conflict with line managers and supervisors. The main impact is stress, a drop in motivation and commitment, and in one in ten situations either the employee or the line manager leaving their job. Another potential impact is sickness absence.

The research points out that resolution is achieved through a mixture of formal and informal channels. The CIPD comments: “In particular this should include approaches such as mediation, which are currently rarer options than formal channels, but importantly provide a way to facilitate informal discussions. It does little good to rely on grievance and discipline procedures alone, as this will often mean conflict festers until it escalates to a serious level.”

The research also points out that “even in relatively small organisations, we need concerted action to develop the skills and encourage methods, such as mediation, that enable more direct approaches”.

What is perhaps most concerning is that “1.5 per cent of employees who report conflict used mediation, most of which was provided by the employer.” There is a gap that needs to be bridged and work needs to be done to make mediation more widely used.

In the CMI report, the issue of conflict is examined from a different perspective. They have looked at difficult conversations in the work place and found that there is a great reluctance to engage in such conversations and that “Brits find it harder to ask their boss for a pay rise than to dump a partner”. Their research has found that the top three difficult conversations in the workplace are pay, colleague’s inappropriate behaviour and feedback on poor performance.

When cross referenced with the CIPD study, my conclusion would be that most people are not generally equipped to have the early conversation that might reduce conflict and that when conflict occurs they don’t have access to one of the main tools (mediation) to resolve it.

For the Network, the research reinforces our efforts to make people aware of mediation, how they can access it and how to learn the skills of mediation. The more people in the workplace are aware of mediation, the more people will be able to identify that they need somebody independent to help them resolve disputes.

It has been estimated that stress related absence from work costs the Scottish economy £300 million. As mediation could make a significant impact on workplace disputes then it’s got to be worth using more.

• Graham Boyack is director of the Scottish Mediation Network

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