Can mediation really help to resolve workplace issues?

Peter Whitman of North West Mediation Solutions discusses conflict in the workplace.

In February 2013, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) together with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) released their latest guide entitled "Mediation: An approach to resolving workplace issues " ("the Guide") which concluded mediation is an essential tool in resolving workplace conflict, although not necessarily the panacea for all issues.

This comes as no surprise as Acas and the CIPD in sharing their aim of promoting good dispute resolution techniques have stated that: "We believe that mediation, when used appropriately, can offer a fresh approach to organisations wishing to avoid the potentially destructive effects of drawn-out conflict"

The statement follows the government's response to its 2011 consultation, "Resolving Workplace Disputes", which made clear the Government’s intention "to embark on a long-term reform programme to build a new approach to resolving workplace disputes so that the use of mediation to resolve disputes becomes a more accepted and trusted part of the process"

However, it is perhaps useful to look at some of the observations and just how the guide came to that conclusion and why, and to reflect if your company should make more use of this widely recognised and successful form of alternate dispute resolution


Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict is an inherent part of the employment relationship. Modern organisations are dynamic and complex, made up of people with increasingly diverse backgrounds, opinions, values and expectations about work. For their part, organisations are under ever increasing pressure to be productive or deliver quality service to clients. The continuous change experienced by many organisations can also lead to conflict. As the HR consultant at Incommunities commented in the guide: "I think the constant changes bring tension."

A certain degree of healthy conflict – for example, fair competition between individuals to excel in their roles – can be a good thing and can even help to create innovation within teams. However, often the tension can lead to discord and start to create negative conflict. It is when the initial disagreement is pushed under the carpet and not managed properly that the situation can fester and the conflict spiral

Line managers typically have to play multiple roles in today's workplace. It is not surprising that many shy away from having those difficult conversations with staff, particularly if they lack the skills or training to handle complex situations that have become personalized, but if conflict is not managed directly, at an early stage, their job in helping the parties to resolve their differences will be much harder.

Disputes in the workplace can be disastrous for the business as they often escalate quickly and lead to a breakdown in communication between staff. A business is only as successful as those who work within it.


The Cost of Conflict to Your Organisation

When attempting to calculate the cost of workplace conflict to the organisation, CIPD and Acas calculated that the following matters have to be taken into account:

The risk of time-consuming formal procedures such as grievances and employment tribunal claims.

  • Sickness absence costs as the individuals concerned take time off to deal personally with the effects of the conflict.
  • Management time being diverted to dealing with the conflict instead of focusing on managing the business.
  • Staff turnover and re-recruitment and re-training costs, where conflict leads to the departure of those affected from the organization.
  • Lower staff morale leading to less commitment to exerting discretionary effort, leading to lower productivity.
  • Poor working relationships within the teams affected.
  • Loss of focus on corporate goals and common objectives as people are distracted by the disagreement.
  • The potential for a blame culture to develop, rather than one focused on innovation.
  • The employer's external reputation could be compromised.
It goes without saying, the cost to your organisation can be considerable if conflict is not dealt with in the right manner.

The Advantages of Mediation

Acas and CIPD believe there are advantages to mediation and, therefore, convincing reasons to promote the wider use of mediation in individual employment disputes.

Flexibility One advantage of using an informal approach means there is greater flexibility in how it is used to suit specific circumstances. Also, the confidentiality of the process can offer a breathing space that allows more open and honest discussion.

Speed Further, mediation can provide a swifter response to conflict and can nip potentially damaging disputes in the bud. It has been shown to reduce levels of grievances and where these would have led to a tribunal.

Cost It provides a far cheaper response than the employment tribunal process, which can involve immediate financial costs to the organisation and the individual claimant, as well as non-financial burdens.

In depth assessment Moreover, employment tribunals do not resolve systemic problems at work that may underlie an individual dispute. Mediation is more likely to enable the employer to get beneath the problem and make changes to working practices that can benefit employees and the organisation more generally in the long term. In particular, mediation can help to address issues around stress, helping to prevent long-term absence.

Confidentiality Finally, as confidentiality is a key element of mediation, as mentioned above, it allows the parties to "tell all" in the confidence it will not be repeated as anything said during the process stays in the room and is not disclosed to line managers or HR.

The Benefits of Mediation

Three quarters of the respondents to the 2008 CIPD survey on workplace mediation considered mediation to be the most effective approach to resolving conflicts in the workplace. That survey also concluded that in the majority of cases where mediation was used it was an effective way of resolving issues that would otherwise have had to be resolved at a tribunal.

That 2008 CIPD survey on mediation also identified other common benefits to include:

  • Retaining valuable employees (63%)
  • Reducing the number of formal grievances raised (57%)
  • Developing an organisational culture that focuses on managing and developing people (55%)
  • Reducing sickness absence (33%)
According to the 2011 CIPD Conflict Management survey report, the main benefits to the business in using mediation were:
  • Improving relationships between individuals (80%)
  • Reducing or eliminating the stress involved in more formal processes (64%)
  • Avoiding the costs involved in defending employment tribunal claims (52%)
Mediation has many potential benefits for the organisation not least in reducing the stress involved in using formal procedures and improving relationships.

What Type of Conflict is suitable for a Workplace Mediation?

Some workplace disagreements are particularly suitable for using mediation – for example, relationship breakdowns and some bullying and harassment cases.

The Ministry of Justice quoted that "Sometimes certain behaviours can be perceived as discrimination, harassment or bullying, when that is not how they were intended. Mediation can be a good way to help the "victim" see the other person's perspective and help the other side see how their behaviour is affecting their colleagues.”

What issues are suitable for workplace mediation?

Any issue which is causing conflict, or distress in the work place, but below are listed some of the areas:
  • Bullying
  • Sexual harassment
  • Sexual or racial discrimination
  • Interpersonal difficulties
  • Inappropriate behaviour
  • Management of change
  • Power struggles
  • Under performance issues
  • Absence owing to stress
  • Equality of pay; grading; terms and conditions; flexible working
  • Employment claims of unfair dismissal arising from any of the above
Mediation cannot resolve all the problems between the two employees but it is a start to "rebuild those bridges". I thought it was nicely summed up in the quote in the guide by the personnel adviser from West Midlands Police who said: "For me, the success of mediation is to bring about some sort of resolution that allows the two individuals to have a relationship at work. It doesn't have to be a friendly relationship, but a professional one."

What Type of Conflict is not suitable for a Workplace Mediation?

It will come as no surprise to you that, as mediators, we would advise that there are very few situations where a mediation is not appropriate but forcing people to use mediation, or incorporating it as a mandatory part of a grievance procedure, could be counter-productive and worsen already difficult relations between those involved.


As anticipated the guide comes down very heavily in favour of mediation because of its overwhelming advantages for dealing with problems and conflict in the workplace and we commend it to you.

If you do not already utilise mediation in dealing with conflict situations then we would welcome a discussion with you so we can assist you to develop a mediation culture going forward.

If you do already utilise mediation then again we welcome a discussion as to how we could assist with the future conflicts that you will find in your workplace.