ERTT – The Art of Mediation

These are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest ER Think Tank (ERTT) held on Thursday 21st March 2013 hosted by State Street Bank’s Kathy Paton (Director, EMEA Head of Employee Relations), titled ‘The Art of Mediation’.

The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior ER and HR professionals from leading UK and international businesses. Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’.

Unresolved workplace disputes are one of the biggest barriers to employee engagement. These conflicts and quarrels can drain resources, take up large volumes of time and cost an excessive amount of money. However, introducing an effective mediation scheme can help put an end to a ‘grievance culture’, efficiently solve cases and save companies hefty sums of money (David Liddle, 2012).

Managing the Challenges

In many ways mediation has been used as a conflict resolution tool for numerous years without it formally being labelled as such. However, as many employees become more litigious and businesses continue to feel the pinch (both emotionally and financially) as cases continue to be escalated to tribunal unnecessarily; it’s surely about time that a formal process was put in place.

The optimal result for effective mediation is reaching a mutually accepted resolution, whilst mitigating disruption to the business as much as possible. But deciding to embed a mediation process throws up a meaty list of questions, such as:

  • What actually is mediation and how can it be defined?
  • Should I outsource mediation to a third party or develop the skills internally?
  • If I choose to grow an internal mediation function, who needs up-skilling? ER Advisors, People Managers, Shared Service Centre staff or a dedicated team?
  • How can I manage the impact that a mediation scheme will have on my business’s relationship with the trade unions?

Defining Mediation

Before jumping too far into the ‘Art of Mediation’, let’s go back to basics and define what mediation actually is. David Liddle (Mediation Expert) describes the process of mediation as a non-adversarial, impartial facilitated discussion; whereby an open and honest dialogue is conducted in order to reach a mutually accepted resolution. The mediator does not propose solutions or make judgements, but simply uses a unique set of skills to create a degree of understanding between the parties involved. Does an internal mediator sit too closely to the issue and can they ever truly be impartial?

Establishing an In-house Mediation Service

Firstly it’s important to note that a business needs to be large enough to warrant an internal mediation service. If you’ve managed to either develop or buy-in these skills, they need to be used regularly to prevent them being weakened and eventually becoming redundant. Thankfully there are external consultancies available like the TCM Group who can assist with establishing mediation schemes within your business and CEDR who can offer training to up-skill your existing workforce.

When embedding an internal mediation model, it’s crucial that involved parties trust the mediator and sense an independence from the employer. The content and outputs from the discussion have to be handled in confidence; the whole success of the process rests on the validity of the discussion.

In some cases, internal mediators might be considered too close to the problem – is there value in having cross-organisational mediation support between non-competing businesses in the same industry? Willing organisations give up their time to offer mediation services to their peers in exchange for a reciprocated service. Perhaps an idea worth investigating.

In the majority of cases, it’s unlikely that internal mediation is going to be someone’s full time job. So who should have these skills ‘bolted’ onto their role – individuals within HR or employees from the wider business? In both cases, ‘business as usual’ activities can take over forcing mediation to the back of the queue – when up-skilling a member of staff, they need to be aware of the importance of their role as a mediator and have a realistic work load initially to allow them to jump on cases as and when required.

What is Good Mediation?

Mediation is one of a number of utensils featured within your conflict resolution toolkit. It does work, but isn’t right for every circumstance. Often it is considered an ‘end of the road’ solution, which can dilute a lot of the value; using mediation early on during a conflict can prevent cases being unnecessarily escalated and diminish the need for legal action. Addressing when it’s appropriate is absolutely part of the process. Before introducing mediation into your business, ask yourself:

  • What’s our definition of mediation?
  • What are our ground rules within the process?
  • What situations will we use it in?
  • What training or external service is required to meet the needs?

Being aware of why you are mediating is also crucial. Are you protecting your external or internal reputation, are you attempting to reduce costs or are you mitigating risk to your engagement levels? Being clear of this will help you arrive at your desired outcome. However, never underestimate the value of a simple apology – quite often this is the sticking point for aggrieved parties and is enough to settle their conflict.

So, what are the attributes of a good mediator?

  • Active listening
  • Patience
  • Being non-judgemental
  • Building trust
  • Raising awareness of a problem without pointing the finger
  • Coaching someone to arrive at a mutually accepted conclusion

Initiating the Process

Mediation can be an effective solution for businesses; providing employees and managers are aware that it is offered as a service / tool. Whilst it’s agreed that staff shouldn’t be able to demand it, making them aware of their options and ‘outlining the deal’ is advisable. If HR, ER or the Shared Service Centre (depending on the process owner) decide it’s the right conflict resolution tool based upon their framework, it could end up preventing an unnecessary grievance or even a case resulting in legal action.

Employees are often most engaged during on-boarding; perhaps it’s a good time to communicate their options in the event of a workplace conflict and who they should contact to solve the issue. It’s unlikely that new joiners will remember the full policies, but just knowing that they’re there is often the catalyst needed to initiate the conversation.

Final Thoughts

Whilst it’s acknowledged that mediation isn’t the answer to all conflict resolution, it’s considered appropriate for approximately 80% of all cases and has a reported 80% success rate of reaching resolution on all mediated disputes. Often, aggrieved employees are grateful for the opportunity to be taken seriously and given the chance to vent their frustrations in a formal environment before they have the desire to take a more serious course of action. However, when a solution is identified it’s crucial to have the resources in place to follow up on cases in order to prevent the same issue from arising again and the mediation being considered a ‘quick fix’.


  • Mediation is not a one size fits all and needs to be specific to an organisation in terms of timing, drivers and which model to adopt
  • It’s essential to identify the purpose of conducting mediation in the first instance – are there PR, financial or engagement drivers behind it?
  • Test the waters before rolling out an all-encompassing model. Why not trial an external mediation consultancy within a piloted area to monitor results?
  • Define how you want mediation to look within your business – a bespoke adaptation isn’t a bad thing
  • Ensure that employees are aware of what options are available to them should they be faced with a work placed dispute – where’s the information available, who should they contact and when should this information be first communicated to them?
  •  Up-skill People / Site Managers on how to hold difficult conversations with staff to enable more informal mediation to occur before it results in a formal case.
Oasis HR

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One Response to “ERTT – The Art of Mediation”

  1. Aled Davies

    A very interesting perspective on the application of mediation in organisations. I wanted to pick up on a couple of points.

    I think one obstacle that is problematic is the clash in culture between a collaborative, transparent and compassionate approach to managing conflict and the adversarial, unilateral policies and procedures that exist in many organisations.

    Mediation is an effective tool in workplace conflict because there are ongoing relationships to preserve, whether or not an internal or external mediator is required depends, in my view, on which stage in the conflict the parties are at. It’s easier and more cost effective to intervene in the conflict early on than in the latter stages. When there’s a high emotional component I’d suggest looking to someone who’s experienced in mediation and familiar with this type of issue or case. If the conflict has just surfaced, then I think someone who can manage the process of mediation will often to a job that’s ‘good enough’.

    The attributes of a good mediator is a topic widely discussed and I think this aspect is often neglected during mediator training. I think core values of compassion, curiosity and accountability – anyone rooted in these core values when mediating will enhance the quality of the conversation.

    There’s a well known UK mediator (David Richbell) who has written papers on what distinguishes the good from the bad and ugly provides his perspective in this interview – Qualities of a Mediator

    Maybe employers should look at selecting HR professionals or suitable internal mediators based upon some of these qualities.



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