When mediation is the right approach to resolving workplace conflict

Louisa Dickinson
December 7, 2016

[bs_lead]Healthy conflict exists in most dynamic and interactive workplaces, where employees debate and learn from each other’s different perspectives. But other types of conflict between colleagues can be damaging and, if ignored, can damage morale, reduce productivity and may lead to increased costs and legal issues for the organisation.[/bs_lead]

There’s usually a sense of urgency surrounding these issues and a quick turnaround is required. Worklogic gets involved in these matters when there is a sense that independent, impartial, external and specialised assistance is required to help those involved to resolve the issues that have arisen between them. In this kind of situation, workplace mediation can be a very effective approach to resolving these disputes.

A request for external mediation is often triggered by a complaint having been made to HR or management; after there’s been some an incident between those involved that has brought the matter to a head; or after there has been a workplace investigation and there is a need to re-build the relationship between the participants.

Mediations are sometimes requested on the initiative of an organisation and in other instances, they occur because of a specific grievance, or due to the operation of an industrial or Code of Conduct process that requires that an informal resolution (such as through mediation) be explored in the first instance, prior to undertaking formal investigation.


What is a workplace mediation?


Workplace mediation involves a voluntary and confidential discussion between those involved in the conflict, which is facilitated by an impartial mediator.

The goal of a workplace mediation is for participants to resolve the dispute themselves, by making an informed decision that everyone can live with. The mediator will not impose an outcome and a resolution will not be required or forced on the participants.

Even if the participants cannot resolve the dispute through the mediation process, they should gain a better understanding of each other’s concerns and perspectives and an improved understanding of the reasons behind the conflict that has arisen.


Why mediate?


The obvious reason for referring a workplace conflict to mediation is that issues have arisen between individuals or a group of individuals that require resolution through an informal process.

Some of the key benefits of mediation are:


  • it provides an early intervention that enables the participants to address issues between them before matters escalate or deteriorate further;


  • it’s confidential and private and can be done within a relatively short timeframe;


  • participants have a voice and a safe forum to vent, clear the air and express their perspectives;


  • past actions are explored and participants have the opportunity to understand the source of the conflict that’s arisen but it’s also future-focussed, insofar as any agreement reached can provide a framework for an ongoing relationship – how we communicate with each other, how we resolve future conflict, etc;


  • it’s an empowering process in which the participants are given agency and responsibility for their own outcomes. Consequently, they are invested and any outcome or resolution reached is not imposed on them; and


  • the organisation sends a clear message that it takes the matter seriously and wants to invest in assisting the participants to navigate a way forward or restore their damaged relationships.


What issues can be mediated?


  • Interpersonal conflict.


  • Employee grievances and complaints.


  • In some instances, complaints about bullying and sexual harassment can be mediated – but only after the matter has been carefully assessed and there is genuine agreement between the participants to participate in the mediation process.


When is mediation the right approach to workplace conflict?


Mediation is but one of a range of interventions and approaches available when responding to workplace conflict or managing complaints. For it to be the right, there are some necessary pre-requisites, which include:


  • the level of conflict is moderate;


  • there are clearly identified issues that can have tangible resolutions;


  • the participants are participating on a voluntary basis;


  • there is no significant disparity in the bargaining power between the participants;


  • the participants are capable of freely expressing themselves and representing their positions;


  • the participants agree to confidentiality and accept that it is a private process;


  • there is a community of interest between the participants, i.e., they are both invested in the matter being resolved;


  • the organisation is prepared to provide ongoing support to the participants moving forward and agrees to and is willing to facilitate the resolutions reached.


What are the ingredients of a successful mediation?


A mediation is most likely to result in a successful outcome when participants:


  • believe that the dispute can be resolved;


  • are willing to attempt to resolve it and have an openness to the possibilities of the process;


  • have insight and a capacity to self-reflect;


  • are ready to move beyond the dispute;


  • have the capacity and willingness to listen to the other’s perspective.


When is mediation not necessarily the best option?


There are situations when mediation is not necessarily the best approach to resolving workplace conflict. This is particularly true when:


  • the issues raised by the complainant involve serious allegations, which require a more formal response from the organisation such as a workplace investigation;


  • the issue relates to the conduct of others or broader organisational issues, which may be more appropriately addressed by another process, such as a workplace review;


  • participants see the mediation process as merely “ticking the boxes”; for example where it is a step required by a Code of Conduct process before a more formal process can commence;


  • participants are disengaged, insensitive and not committed to seeking to understand the other person’s perspective;


  • there would be a risk of further harm to the participants’ well-being;


  • the participants have a deeply personal antipathy towards each other;


  • a participant is using the process to make their case and doesn’t understand it’s not a determinative process or about convincing the mediator.


When the circumstances are right, mediation can be an empowering and transformative process that can assist participants to move forward with more positive working relationships. It can also avoid the time, cost and disruptiveness of more formal processes and lead to greater understanding and collaboration.


About Louisa Dickinson


Louisa DickinsonLouisa’s experience as an employment lawyer and conciliator has informed her sophisticated understanding of the complexities of workplace disputes and their resolution. Louisa brings strong communication and analytical skills, as well as a sensitive, practical approach, to the workplace investigations and mediations she undertakes at Worklogic.

For a confidential discussion on issues that might benefit from mediation at your workplace, please contact Louisa via email (ldickinson@worklogic.com.au) or give us a call on (03) 9981 6567.

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