Time for a mediator?

Employee disagreements causing workplace stress? Mediation is not just for labour disputes anymore
By Catharine Allen
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/04/2003

Rising workplace stress levels can heighten personal tensions between co-workers and between workers and their supervisors. One often overlooked method of improving this problem is to use mediation to resolve internal disputes before they become disruptive to the whole organization.

Professional mediation used to be reserved for large labour disputes. But it’s just as effective at resolving much smaller disputes between individuals within an organization — or even between employees and customers, suppliers and other outside agencies.

It hasn’t gained widespread acceptance because the benefits of successful mediation are often difficult to quantify: improved morale, reduced workplace stress and increased productivity.

Return on investment

Two things have made the mediation of smaller, individual disputes feasible. The first is an increase in the number of professional mediators available. The second factor is cost. While it can be expensive to hire professional mediators — who usually charge an hourly rate for perhaps one or two meetings, or a flat fee for the entire mediation of a workplace conflict — the cost can be viewed as an investment with enormous potential return. A productivity-robbing dispute may be given a lasting solution, a skilled employee on the verge of quitting persuaded to remain on the job or a costly firing due to a “personality conflict with other employees” avoided.

How it works

The mediation process is often driven by the employer, who refers participants to the mediator. Participants are usually identifiable by their repeated attendance at HR’s door with complaints of stress, harassment and conflicts.

Despite the fact the company pays for the mediator’s service, the mediator adopts a strictly neutral position in resolving a dispute. Mediators cannot breach the privacy of the process or act as witnesses in any subsequent legal proceedings.

The mediation process itself is often conducted in a neutral setting, away from the workplace. The time involved can range from one to a dozen or more hours. Sometimes after just one session, participants find themselves with a new grasp of the facts or a new perspective on the situation.

In many cases, participants are not aware that their conduct has been not only detrimental to the company, but perhaps illegal or bordering on illegal as it degenerates dangerously toward harassment or even discrimination.

Communicating this information can often solve a problem before it escalates into a wrongful dismissal suit.

Human and financial costs related to stress can also be reduced. Morale and productivity go up while the need for employee assistance plan counselling, absenteeism, stress leave and turnover go down. The value of these improvements can be weighed against the cost of mediation (the mediator’s fees and paid employee time for the mediation sessions).

For large organizations, which may painstakingly track and analyze annual absenteeism rates and the costs of stress-induced disability leave, the impact on the bottom line may be easier to tabulate.

For smaller companies, the benefits can be more difficult to quantify. However, since many smaller companies rely on the skills of just one or two highly skilled employees, the loss of just one staff member due to unresolved workplace conflict could be devastating. In that case, mediation can be the “ounce of prevention” that’s needed.

Catharine Allen, a mediator and arbitrator, is the president of Toronto ADR Services. She can be reached at mediate@torontoadr.com or (416) 724-4449.

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