Commonly asked questions on the legal issues relating to trade union recognition and industrial action
Mediation is a voluntary process led by an impartial third party that organisations can use to resolve conflict. Conflict can occur in any employment relationship and is best dealt with early at source. If left unchecked, it can fester and escalate, potentially leading to grievance and discipline procedures or employment tribunals. Mediation, a form of alternative dispute resolution, avoids these more formal and costlier routes by guiding participants towards reaching mutual acceptable solutions.
This factsheet looks at workplace conflict, how mediation can help resolve different disputes, and what it entails. It outlines the mediation process, including what sort of situations mediation can help with, who should be involved, and when mediation should be called upon. Importantly, it also considers when mediation might not be appropriate. Finally, it offers guidance on implementing mediation including training, gaining buy-in, raising awareness and allocating resources.
Our research shows that workplace conflict is most likely to be resolved when direct action, either informal or formal, is taken. Mediation isn’t the only course of action. In some cases, it may be most appropriate to go straight to a formal disciplinary procedure and in others, one party may refuse to take part in mediation. However, it is typically less costly – both in time, money and relationship fallout – than the more formal routes of grievance, discipline and tribunals.
The success of mediation lies partly in the fact that it’s voluntary and the parties enter the process as willing participants with a common goal of wanting to sort out their differences. It is an opportunity to find ‘win-win’ solutions that suit both parties.
The earlier that mediation is used in an employment dispute, the greater the chance of successfully resolving the conflict and re-establishing workable relationships. As conflict continues, people’s positions often become entrenched and it gets harder to find resolution. There’s a strong case for developing skills in relationship building and mediation throughout organisations and, rather like coaching skills, making them a core part of the people management skills set.
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What is mediation?
Mediation is a tool to resolve workplace conflict or disputes. It’s often described as a form of alternative or informal dispute resolution as it’s less formal than grievance and discipline procedures and employment tribunals. It nonetheless follows a structured approach.
Mediation seeks to provide a speedy solution to individual workplace conflict, and can be used at any stage of a disagreement or dispute. The process is flexible and voluntary, and any agreement is morally rather than legally binding. It also seeks to provide fuller solutions that address underlying causes and are more genuinely win-win than adversarial approaches. The process aims to provide a safe, confidential space for those involved (the ‘parties’) to find solutions that are acceptable to each side. Specifically, mediation provides the potential to:
- help parties involved in conflict to hold open conversations that would normally be too difficult to have constructively
- help parties to understand and empathise with each other’s emotions and situations
- explore all parties' issues and concerns of all parties and use joint problem-solving to find a solution that each side feels is fair
- encourage communication and establish workable relationships
- help participants develop the skills to resolve workplace difficulties for themselves in future.
A trained mediator’s role is to act as an impartial third party who facilitates a meeting between two or more people in dispute to help them reach an agreement. Although the mediator is in charge of the process, any agreement comes from those in dispute.
Mediation is preferable to more formal legalistic processes in various ways:
- It makes parties less rather than more entrenched in their views and thus more open to compromise.
- It can maintain and improve relationships.
- It is less stressful for those involved.
- It avoids the costs involved in defending employment tribunal claims.
It can become clear during mediation (sometimes very early on) that one or both parties feel the relationship is essentially beyond repair. ‘Workplace mediation’ focuses on maintaining the relationship and helping people find ways to work together better, and can be distinguished from ‘employment mediation’ where the central issue is how to end the employment relationship in as peaceable a way as possible. While workplace mediation can become employment mediation, they have different aims and can benefit from different approaches.
At some point, conflict is almost inevitable in work relationships. A certain degree of conflict over technical issues – such as what tasks to do and how to do them – can be helpful, as it injects critical evaluation, potentially leading to improvements. But interpersonal tension can easily damage relationships and lead to wider discord and malfunctioning teams.
In general, most in the UK have positive work relationships. Our 2019 UK Working Lives survey finds that 3 in 4 UK workers report good relationships with their line managers and almost 9 in 10 say they have good relationships with colleagues in their teams. By contrast, fewer than 1 in 10 reports a poor relationship with their line manager and fewer than 1 in 20 reports poor relationships with team colleagues.
But despite these generally positive assessments, a number of us experience flashpoints of conflict or unfair treatment at work: 3 in 10 workers report at least one form of bullying or harassment in the last year. There are also common signs of some of the roots of conflict. One in 5 UK workers points to a blame culture among their managers and 1 in 5 also point to a lack of an inclusive culture in their teams.
The organisational costs of conflict can include:
- management time being diverted to deal with the conflict instead of focusing on managing the business
- the risk of costly formal proceedings such as grievances and employment tribunals
- unworkable relationships and a decline in productivity
- lower staff morale and employee engagement
- sickness absence costs
- staff turnover and associated recruitment costs.
Our survey report Getting under the skin of workplace conflict describes employees’ experiences of interpersonal conflict at work. It shows how conflict – both isolated clashes and ongoing difficult relationships – can arise, affecting individuals and their work. Further, when conflict is not addressed and resolved, the situation tends to fester.
What happens in mediation?
There are distinct phases in a mediation.
Firstly, the mediator meets with each party separately to understand their experience of the conflict, their position and interests and what they want to happen next. During these meetings, the mediator will also seek to get agreement from the parties to proceed to a facilitated joint meeting.
In joint meetings:
- Each party recounts their story uninterrupted and listens to that of the other party.
- The parties work towards a mutually acceptable solution.
- The facilitator usually writes an agreement approved by both parties.
The mediator will bring the meetings to a close, provide a copy of the agreed statement to those involved and explain their responsibilities for its implementation. If no agreement is reached, other procedures may later be used to try to resolve the conflict.
It’s important that people are able to express their feelings to the other party about why they feel aggrieved and how the unfair treatment has affected them. Often, they will not have been properly heard before, as avoidance or heated arguments will have prevented this. Feeling heard can be cathartic and hearing the stories of adversaries can positively change feelings about them.
However, at some point during a joint meeting, a key process is for people to move the parties’ focus away from the past (their grievances and experiences) and towards what they want to happen now and in the future.
A key way that mediators facilitate this process is to help people to think not in terms of the positions that they adopt in conflict (for example, ‘I can never trust you again’) and towards the issues that they care about (for example, ‘I want to feel that I am supported, not undermined by my colleagues’). These subtle shifts in mindset can be hard to achieve but tend to be powerful. They are central to the mediation process.
Anything said during mediation should be confidential to those taking part, unless all parties agree to share specific points, such as agreed actions or arrangements with their colleagues, managers, or HR. This means that often, a mediator may report to HR that a meeting has successfully taken place but not disclose the detail of what was discussed or agreed. The only exceptions to default confidentiality are where, for example, a potentially unlawful act has been committed or there’s a serious risk to health and safety.
Some lawyers practice as mediators, as do managers and trade union representatives through in-house mediation schemes. But representation by lawyers, trade unions, colleagues or relatives is generally discouraged – especially in ‘shuttle mediation’, where the parties are not present in the same room and messages relayed between them. Mediation works best where there is direct interaction between those involved in the conflict, leading to open and honest discussion, a reframing of relationships and solutions that the parties find themselves. In contrast, representation can lead to the formalisation of the mediation process. This is discussed further in our employers’ guide Mediation: an approach to resolving workplace issues.
When is mediation appropriate?
Mediation isn’t a panacea for every dispute or disagreement in the workplace but there are signs it is underused. More common seems to be what our report Conflict management: a shift in direction? described as ‘facilitated conversations’ by HR, which can be seen as a ‘process light’ and management-led version of mediation. Our 2015 survey found 37% of UK employees who had experienced workplace conflict in the last year had had discussions with HR or their line manager. By contrast, mediation was used by fewer than 2% of the same employees.
There aren’t any hard and fast rules governing when and how mediation should be used, but some principles include:
Who? Mediation can be used for conflict involving colleagues of a similar job or grade, or between those with different jobs and levels of seniority. It can also be used where there’s a disagreement between a line manager and a member of staff, or groups of staff.
When? It can be used at any stage in the conflict including to rebuild relationships after a formal dispute has been resolved. Used in the early stages of a dispute it has the benefit of stopping it from escalating. At a very early stage, a team manager may use mediation techniques informally in helping people resolve differences, rather than bringing in a designated mediator. Equally, mediation can be useful when managers aren’t well placed to deal with a dispute, for example because they’re implicated in it or lack the skills to resolve it themselves.
What? It can be used to address a range of workplace issues including relationship breakdown, personality clashes, communication problems, and bullying and harassment. Relationship breakdown is the issue most frequently cited by employers as suitable for mediation.
When mediation may not be appropriate
Mediation may be unsuitable if:
- a decision about right or wrong is needed, such as in cases of criminal activity or overt abuse, when disciplinary procedures are more appropriate
- an individual bringing a discrimination or harassment case wants it investigated formally
- an individual has experiencing mental health problems or has learning difficulties that will be an obstacle to a joint meeting
- it's clear the parties don’t have the authority to settle the issue.
Using mediation at different stages of conflict
Early intervention can prevent both sides from becoming entrenched and avoid a full-blown dispute in which an employment tribunal claim becomes more likely.
In some organisations, mediation is written into formal discipline and grievance procedures as an optional stage. Where this isn’t the case, it’s useful to be clear about whether the discipline and grievance procedure can be put on hold if mediation is appropriate.
Acas has a statutory duty to offer free ‘early conciliation’ before employees lodge an employment tribunal claim. This approach has been developed in response to evidence of the benefit of early intervention, in particular before a tribunal claim has been filed. The principles of conciliation are identical to those of mediation, but any agreement reached in conciliation is legally binding.
How organisations introduce mediation is important for its effectiveness. Success factors include:
- Commitment from senior leaders, line managers and trade unions (where they are recognised).
- Raising awareness so that employees know that it’s available and understand its value.
- Linking it to other HR processes. For example, creating an expectation that colleagues in conflict try mediation before going through formal processes, and keep the option to halt the formal process at any time and return to mediation. In a more challenging approach, some have argued that grievance procedures should be overhauled, centred on mediation and renamed ‘resolution procedures’.
Planning resources for internal or external mediators
There are different options for introducing mediation into an organisation, in particular:
- Developing an in-house mediation scheme, with trained internal mediators.
- Using external mediator services, possibly as part of a call-on/call-off arrangement to deliver services as and when necessary.
These two approaches can be used alongside one another.
Factors to consider when planning internal or external mediation arrangements include:
- Size of the organisation – it may be more appropriate for a small organisation to use external mediators who will be perceived as independent.
- Cost – setting up an internal scheme is likely to demand more upfront investment, but may be more cost-effective in the longer term.
- How to select, train and manage a pool of internal mediators.
- The amount of experience internal mediators get – it needs to be enough for them to maintain their skills.
- Ongoing support and supervision of mediation arrangements is needed, particularly if the organisation is operating its own scheme.
- If internal staff are responsible for conducting mediations, adequate time off needs to be factored into their working week.
- It‘s good practice for there to be a dedicated person responsible for overseeing the mediation arrangements.
A number of organisations run accredited training courses for internal mediators.
Management training is key to ensuring organisational behaviour complements the provision of mediation. According to our report Real-life leaders: closing the knowing-doing gap, managing conflict and having difficult conversations are the top two challenges for leaders at all levels. Managers can apply mediation skills informally to resolve low level conflict, helping build robust teams in which disagreement can be expressed safely.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
ACAS. (2014) Managing conflict at work. Advisory booklet. London: Acas.
GIBBONS, M. (2007) Better dispute resolution: a review of employment dispute resolution in Great Britain. London: Department of Trade and Industry.
LEWIS, C. (2015) How to master workplace and employment mediation. London: Bloomsbury.
LIDDLE, D. (2017) Managing conflict: a practical guide to resolution in the workplace. London: Kogan Page.
SEAMAN, R. (2016) Explorative mediation at work: the importance of dialogue for mediation practice. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
SAUNDRY, R., LATREILLE, P. and ASHMAN, I. (eds) (2016) Reframing resolution: innovation and change in the management of workplace conflict. London: Palgrave Macmillan
WOOD, S., SAUNDRY, R. and LATREILE, P. (2014) Analysis of the nature, extent and impact of grievance and disciplinary procedures and workplace mediation using WERS2011. Research paper ref: 10/14. London: Acas.
Visit the CIPD and Kogan Page Bookshop to see all our priced publications currently in print.
BENNETT, T. (2014) The role of workplace mediation: a critical assessment. Personnel Review. Vol 43, No 5, pp764-779.
SIMMS, J. (2017) There’s more than one way to solve a dispute. People Management (online). 25 July.
TALLODI, T (2015) Mediation's potential to reduce occupational stress: a new perspective. Conflict Resolution Quarterly. Vol 32, No 4. pp361-388.
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This factsheet was updated by Jonny Gifford.
Jonny Gifford: Senior Adviser for Organisational Behaviour
Jonny is the CIPD’s Senior Adviser for Organisational Behaviour. He has had a varied career in researching employment and people management issues, working at the Institute for Employment Studies and Roffey Park Institute before joining the CIPD in 2012. A central focus in his work is applying behavioural science insights to core aspects of people management. Recently he has led programmes of work doing this in the areas of recruitment, reward and performance management.
Jonny is also committed to helping HR practitioners make better use of evidence to make better decisions. He runs the CIPD Applied Research Conference, which exists to strengthen links between academic research and HR practice.
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