Jonathan E. Pearl
Is your HR Mediating enough?
The Gibbons Review (2007) of workplace dispute resolution recommended that early-stage mediation be used to resolve workplace disputes. Since then HR professionals have begun to appreciate that effective workplace mediation can:
Reduce the time, energy and costs of managing conflict;
Rebuild relationships and help create a less stressful and more productive workplace;
Reduce the likelihood of formal legal procedures being initiated; and
Demonstrate the organisation’s commitment to resolve disputes fairly and constructively.
And the success rates for those employers who use mediation remains high, with most organisations reporting a satisfactory resolution in over 75% of cases, and many mediators pointing to figures closer to 85%.
According to 2014 ACAS report on Workplace Employment Relations mediation has become a significant part of workplace dispute resolution regimes, being used in 17% of workplaces that experienced a formal individual grievance.
But there is so much more to do. Conflict in the workplace is inevitable – managers spend 3-4 hours per week resolving disputes. But did you know that nearly 40% of UK workers report experiencing at least one form of bullying or harassment at work in the last 12 months (and 1 in 7 of those cases remained unresolved during this period)? And significantly, more that 25% of workers who reporting workplace conflict in the last 12 months say they are likely to quit in the next year (almost double the number who reported no conflict).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ACAS has found that mediation is more likely to be used in workplaces with written procedures. Providing the option of mediation in the written grievance procedure is a powerful tool for making mediation as a workplace dispute resolution tool commonplace; not only does it communicate its availability to staff who might otherwise be unaware of its existence, it also sends a clear message that the organisation is committed to the process. This is likely to encourage the use of mediation at an earlier stage in the process - before the dispute becomes more entrenched.
But it is vital to consider how mediation is delivered. Many HR professionals believe that they spend a lot of their time ‘mediating conflict’. And it is undoubted that many HR managers have the necessary soft-skills and the genuine inclination to do so. Unfortunately, many employees think that, when dealing with workplace conflict, HR will have the organisation’s best interests at heart – not theirs. And perceptions of bias can often be compounded by natural concerns about confidentiality. Consequently, there is a limit to how effective informal day-to-day HR mediation can be in resolving the more difficult conflicts.
In 2009 the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures formally acknowledged the importance of using independent mediation as part of normal day-to-day workplace conflict management, stating:
“always seek to resolve disciplinary and grievance issues in the workplace…[and] … where this is not possible employers and employees should consider using an independent third party to help resolve the problem”.
In large organisations, like the Civil Service, it is becoming popular for HR to formally train some of their businesspeople as mediators. These internal trained mediators can then work cross-departmentally – and outside of HR. The benefits of this are that the specially trained staff can use their mediation soft-skills in their day jobs, and the organisation saves the time and money of employing an outside mediator. But this approach is much harder is smaller organisations where fears of partiality and breaches of confidence by internal mediators might put people off getting involved in the process altogether. For guaranteeing impartiality and confidentiality an outsourced mediation model works best. Plus, external mediators are likely to be more experience and possibly more skilled than those who are only mediating occasionally and always within the same working environment.
It is only a matter of time before independent mediation is the go-to response to serious workplace conflicts, and the quicker we get there the better – IMHO!
 Gibbons Review of Employment Dispute Resolution (2007)
 Ditto above.
 CIPD “UK Working Lives Survey 2019”