Keeping the peace at work

Mediation not just last resort after grievance and litigation
By Jeannette Bourgeault
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/17/2012

A workplace where employees feel free to speak up, without fear of reprisal, criticism or judgment, is a peaceful setting where individuals can thrive. That’s a far different experience than a toxic workplace where open conflict is rampant.

Organizations can make the transition by helping managers and employees take steps to develop and foster an environment that embraces conflict to the point of resolving it through a mediated process.

The results can be impressive. Implementing a process of mediation helps alleviate misunderstandings of expectations, uncovers concerns on all sides, brings clarity on how decisions are derived and ensures the correct individuals are involved in decision-making.

Although often thought of as a last resort before or during a grievance or litigation, mediation can be used at any level of conflict. And it’s not just for high-conflict situations — mediation can be used to bridge an understanding between two (or more) individuals. It can be used at the very onset, before the filing of any formal dispute documentation.

Workplaces are full of dynamics that contribute to conflict — age, gender, culture, personality, conflict styles, skills, training and life experiences. Add to this a fast-paced work environment and the challenge of trying to stay on top of the competition and it’s little wonder conflict in the workplace is on the rise.

The cost of unresolved conflict is vast and includes strained relationships both at home and work, and increased stress leave, grievances, staff turnover and absenteeism.

If we look at the process of mediation and the basics of how a mediation session is conducted, it provides an understanding of why this process leads to such successful results. The mediation process:

• is voluntary — each person is encouraged to participate, but it is not mandated

• is confidential — all information is kept between the parties at the meeting unless an agreement is made as to which external individuals should be privy to the conversations

• does not impede future action to file a formal grievance or lawsuit

• is conducted in a non-threatening, trusting environment

• prevents conflict from escalating

• provides an unbiased, neutral third party to facilitate the process, keeping a forward focus

• brings individuals together to define common goals and issues requiring resolution

• focuses on the issues that require a resolution

• removes the blame element by separating the people from the issues

• fosters a better understanding of the concerns, fears and interests of the individuals affected — leading to a balanced, inclusive conversation

• allows for an open forum of brainstorming without judging or critiquing

• is a system of evaluating ideas brought forward against the criteria set by the team

• keeps the power of the decision-making to the individuals affected by the outcome

• focuses on developing a positive, productive solution to conflict.

Employers benefit from mediation by having employees who trust a system they feel is fair and equitable. The process of mediation helps create an understanding between employees that, in turn, enhances team cohesiveness. It reflects decisions made by peers and fosters a vested interest to ensure its success. It is fast, cost-effective and increases employee retention.

There are also benefits to individual employees. Mediation will enable them to use the learned skills to deal with workplace conflict on their own and, in turn, these skills can be transferred to other areas of their lives (such as community, school or family relationships). An engaged employee is a more productive employee who views changes and problems as learning opportunities, and sees value in the work he does.

Mediation can help keep the peace by dealing with situations expediently and focusing on the issues. It helps build an understanding of the concerns, fears and goals of all the individuals involved.

Implementing mediation

How does an organization begin to implement a process to deal with conflict at its earliest stage? First, train managerial staff and human resources on the initial steps required when they detect a conflict. Next, develop guidelines for managerial staff and HR to access the next level of assistance if the process is not moving forward — they may be too close to the situation to offer an unbiased view.

Larger corporations may consider incorporating this structure into their HR division, yet employees often perceive HR as too close to management, representing a biased point of view. If the employer is large enough to have an independent group with expertise in mediation, it can offer training for all levels of staff and assist them when conflict arises that requires an impartial third party. Smaller corporations can contract mediators working in the field for assistance.

By implementing a mediation process in the workplace, peace can be attained by people who are passionate about where they work and the work they do, which can lead to a greater respect for their colleagues. Mediation can alleviate misunderstandings early in the process and allow for a calm, assisted conversation. It can provide a peaceful workplace that all will enjoy and thrive in.

When a corporation uses employee expertise, training and knowledge to create and define a solution with a specific plan of action for the corporation, success is imminent.

Jeannette Bourgeault is a chartered mediator and owner of Pinnacle Mediation Services in Calgary. She can be reached at (403) 796-6338 or pinnaclemediation@shaw.ca.

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