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Mediation: Common sense, costs less and cuts out the courts

Not everyone in a working environment will see eye-to-eye all of the time. Whilst different perspectives can fuel healthy debates that lead to positive outcomes for a business, sometimes these disagreements will become counterproductive and affect the business, its profitability, or the welfare of its staff. The result is internal grievance procedures, tribunal panels, or a court case.

Both tribunal forums and internal processes are expensive. There's the direct expense of taking employees out of work for grievance procedures, as well as the cost of the time spent by management staff in dealing with the dispute. There are also significant indirect costs, with on-going disputes leading to an increase in absenteeism, a drop in productivity and an unpleasant working atmosphere for other employees.

All these costs can be avoided if the parties involved in the dispute are open to mediation. Mediation minimises the likelihood of court action and mitigates the time spent on internal formal processes. It can take as little as a day in total, depending on the complexity of the dispute, and this time certainly pales into significance with the cost of the alternatives.

In the UK, no one is obliged to use mediation, and no company even to offer it, but it is a formal and recognised process. It's not top of many managers' lists, perhaps because of the word's connotations (marriage guidance, perhaps?) but it is becoming a popular and efficient way of resolving problems. Mediation was recently mentioned in an official capacity for the first time by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). In their guidelines for handling disciplinary and grievance proceedings, ACAS recognised mediation as an alternative solution - a means of resolving a conflict without having to go down the route of internal or legal processes.

When drafting in a mediator, there may be some initial cynicism to overcome, as some people - particularly aggrieved employees - can see mediators as 'just another HR person' who isn't on their side. But if you use a skilled and trained mediator to work with the parties involved and encourage them to trust the process, then mediation can be extremely effective. In fact, mediation resolves the vast majority of disputes and conflicts. It's not a panacea; it doesn't work on every occasion; but some studies have shown that it can be successful up to 90% of the time.

One of the main reasons for its efficacy is the impartiality it brings to proceedings. Mediators are objective. They don't have an agenda. They impartially guide both parties through a process which is consultative and resolutely positive, to reach the best outcome for all involved. This process has a defined structure, where both parties describe their version of events and explain the impact these events has had on them. Both parties are given uninterrupted talking time and detail how they want things to change. Instead of dwelling on events which have happened, the focus is on making agreements and commitments on how things are going to be in the future. That doesn't mean that the parties involved can't discuss the impact of what has happened in the past; but the most important principle of mediation is to use this future focus to avoid blame: how you're going to communicate; how you're going to behave towards one another; how you're going to try to improve the quality of the working relationship.

By taking the 'he said, she said' out of the situation, the mediator will get the parties to work together towards a confidential agreement. Ideally this will be in writing, although some parties are happy with a verbal agreement. These agreements are not legally binding, but the fact that the parties involved make the agreement themselves means it's more likely to last. After all, it's much more difficult to walk away from something you have personally contributed towards and are party to. That said, while ideally neither party will give up on the process, the freedom to walk away at any stage is also a vital component of mediation. Indeed, if it becomes compulsory, the process ceases to be considered mediation. The voluntary nature of the process incentivises people to make it work, as each party knows that the other wouldn't be at the table if they didn't want to resolve the issue.

Mediators can be called in at any time. Even if two parties - whether two employees or employer/employee - have been at odds for some time, rarely will the relationship be a lost cause. As well as being a powerful tool in long-standing or entrenched disputes, mediation is also very effective in the early stages of a disagreement. Don't wait until you're already in a grievance or disciplinary process. Don't wait for a situation to get out of control. If you know there's a dispute and the parties are willing to acknowledge there's a problem, you should start thinking about mediation - the sooner the better.

Early mediation will help nip the problem in the bud before anyone gets too upset, before staff go off work sick, before productivity drops, and before morale is damaged. If you allow a problem to fester, you'll only regret it later when you're sitting court, wasting time that could have been spent on actually running your business.

by Sandra Hull FCIPD, Assistant HR Operations Manager

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