quick-reads

How mediation can be used to settle disputes in the workplace

Following the abolition of Employment Tribunal fees, the volume of claims has rocketed, with the resulting inevitable delays in cases being heard.  Now is a good time for employers to consider their approach to dealing with disputes in the workplace and to look at ways to resolve matters internally and without the need for legal actions.  Workplace mediation is one form of alternative dispute resolution to consider.  Here we explain what workplace mediation is, how it works and the benefits.  

What is workplace mediation?

Workplace mediation is a process designed to resolve disputes within the workplace.  It allows parties to a dispute to discuss issues and find solutions in a confidential, safe space.  

The mediator is an objective individual who works with the parties to find a way forward which is acceptable to the employee and to the employer.  The mediator facilitates discussion between the parties and does not make judgements or impose solutions. 

Any agreement is made in good faith and is not legally binding unless further steps are taken to make it binding, for example, by way of a settlement agreement.  

Some employers train their own staff to conduct mediations and others use an external mediator. 

How does it work?

Practices vary between mediators but usually the mediator will speak or meet individually with each party to the mediation before facilitating a joint meeting with all parties present.  

Mediation can be used whilst a formal process, (for example, a grievance process) is ongoing though it is often useful to pause the formal process to let the parties focus on the mediation.  If the mediation is not successful, the formal process can then continue.

Typically mediation is most successful if it is used in the early stages of a dispute or grievance process before parties have become entrenched in their positions and relationships begin to breakdown.  However, it is never too late if the parties are genuinely open to resolving the dispute.

What are the benefits of using mediation?

Mediation is a flexible, informal process and can be arranged and concluded quickly, with some mediations taking as little as a few hours or a day.  It is a forward-looking process with a focus on the parties taking ownership for finding solutions rather than apportioning blame in the way a formal grievance process or Employment Tribunal claim does and so is generally less stressful and less contentious for the parties.  

The dispute can be kept between the parties and colleagues who might be called as witnesses in a formal process but do not have to become involved.  

Mediation involves a much smaller time commitment on the part of the employer and the employee than a formal grievance procedure or Employment Tribunal process, making it more cost effective and less disruptive for employers.

Does mediation work?

The parties must enter the mediation process voluntarily.  It is a mistake for employers to pressurise individuals into mediation as this may make the situation worse.  

A mediator cannot guarantee a successful outcome and much will depend on the willingness of the parties to come to the mediation process with an open mind, a wish to resolve the dispute and realistic expectations.