The benefits of using mediation to resolve workplace conflict
1 Sep 2014
Andrea Broughton, Principal Research Fellow
Dealing with conflict in the workplace is a difficult task, but one that most managers will encounter at some point in their careers. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) devotes a considerable amount of time and resources to advising on how to deal with conflict at work and to stop it from escalating to an employment tribunal claim. Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution that can be effective in helping to resolve a tense and difficult situation in the workplace. It involves using a trained, neutral mediator to engage with the conflicting parties and to help them work towards finding a solution that is acceptable to both sides. Mediation does not necessary need to result in a definitive solution, but is more about bringing both sides together to find a way forward.
One of the potential weakness of mediation, but also one of its strengths, is that it does not guarantee an outcome, as no binding decision is made. Instead, the mediator works with the parties to try to find a solution, but there is no guarantee that the issue will be resolved. While this can be frustrating, it may also mean that the parties to a dispute may be more willing to engage in the process if they are reassured that they will not be forced to accept an outcome with which they are not happy. Acas notes on its website that ’the overriding aim of workplace mediation is to restore and maintain the employment relationship wherever possible. This means the focus is on working together to go forward, not determining who was right or wrong in the past’.
IES evaluation of Acas mediation training
Acas recently commissioned IES, partnering with BMG Research, to carry out an evaluation of Acas’ internal workplace mediation training service, which trains individuals to achieve a formal qualification in mediation (the Certificate in Internal Workplace Mediation, CIWM). This aims to equip mediators with better conflict management and interpersonal skills for day-to-day relationship management and provides accreditation for current and future workplace mediators, subject to the completion of a portfolio.
The research took the form of a telephone survey with mediators who had attended any CIWM training course between April 2012 and March 2013, and case studies of three organisations, of which two had participated in Acas’ in-house training. Telephone interviews were conducted with 150 individuals between 24 October and 20 November 2013, using a semi-structured questionnaire.
The research included the following objectives:
- To provide insights into the perceptions of the accreditation process.
- To provide hard measures and perceptions of the use of mediation in the workplace.
- To examine barriers and facilitators to successful mediation in the workplace.
- To examine the wider effects of mediation training on their job/role, for example, in terms of ‘soft skills’.
- To provide an insight into organisations’ view of the effectiveness of Acas' in-house mediation training.
Perceptions of the accreditation process
Overall, the training was very well received, with 94 per cent of survey respondents stating that they were very or fairly satisfied with the course. From the case studies, there was a great deal of praise for the content of the course, the balance of elements in the course, and the way in which the content was delivered. Many interviewees felt that the trainers were highly skilled and experienced and that they went out of their way to ensure that the course was a success.
These high levels of satisfaction with the training were reflected in the fact that 94 per cent of survey respondents said that they were very or quite likely to recommend Acas training to their colleagues.
Impact of the mediation training
Almost all survey respondents felt that the course had given them a clear framework or structure to work with, had led to a better understanding of the process and had more generally led to greater confidence in managing mediation. Further, the overwhelming majority said that the skills they had acquired on the course were very or quite useful. When asked which skills in particular the respondents valued as very useful, the main skills cited were reframing (whereby the facts of a case are placed in a different, impartial frame, in order to change its emotional setting or its perception by the parties), impartiality, and acknowledging differences in viewpoints between the different parties to mediation.
In terms of opportunities to undertake mediations in their organisation since completing the training, three-fifths of survey respondents said that they were satisfied, although 15 per cent said that they were dissatisfied, largely because cases had not arisen, or there was no organisational mediation policy in place.
Further, the skills that individuals had acquired on the course were reported as transferable to other aspects of their role at work. Almost a quarter of survey respondents said that they used these skills on a day-to-day basis, and one-fifth said that they used them in the management of staff, including situations such as training, coaching and meetings.
Fifteen per cent said that they used these skills in disciplinary and grievance situations, and conflict resolution. Specific skills mentioned included: listening and empathising; an overall improvement in interactions and communication; being able to apply mediation skills to other types of situations in the workplace; and being able to use the skills to improve communication and interaction in their personal life.
Barriers to and facilitators of mediation
Among the main barriers to successful mediation were a perceived lack of impartiality in the mediator, which led to a lack of trust, unrealistic expectations about what mediation can and cannot achieve, a lack of a proper structure around mediation and other organisational issues such as a lack of support for the process. There were also some issues around time, with some people reporting that mediation took longer than expected. Key facilitators for successful mediation included a willingness from both parties to engage in the process and have an open mind, and the skills and competences of the mediator, particularly in terms of listening skills and objectivity. The presence of an established organisational framework for mediation was also seen as important.
Although mediation is a relatively new form of dispute resolution in the UK, it is gaining momentum as more and more organisations come to see its benefits. From this research, it is clear that many organisations want to engage with mediation as a way of resolving workplace issues and improving employment relations in their organisation. Trust plays a key role in the mediation process, and it is therefore of extreme importance that mediators are seen to be impartial. One issue that emerged quite strongly from both our survey and case study work is that many of the trained mediators tend to have an HR background and therefore are either not perceived as being impartial, or have actually already been involved in a dispute in some capacity and so cannot then be involved as a mediator. The provision of a greater number of trained mediators who work outside the HR function is therefore key.
There is clearly scope for further awareness-raising of mediation and publicising of the availability of mediation in organisations, and such activities should include both general managers and line managers. One relevant issue may be the positioning or labelling of mediation within an organisation. It is important that employees understand what mediation is, what it can and cannot do and what it involves. The timing of mediation may also play a part: if organisations are keen to resolve issues informally, they may use mediation too late in the process, as mediation can often be seen as a formal process. More emphasis on using mediation as early as possible in a dispute could help with this.