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Formal processes for disciplinary action in the workplace can end up being a one-way street – no turning back for anyone involved. It is a route that often means a rapid escalation of any conflict – whatever its beginnings might have been – leading to tribunals, dismissals and the likelihood of a legacy of negative feelings.

There are often long-term effects on teams, managers’ careers and workplaces as a whole, including sickness absence, as individuals take time off with stress. In terms of legal fees and manager time, it’s a very expensive and damaging routine. Typically, up to 30% of a manager’s time is said to be spent in dealing with conflict.

Employees and their line managers will turn to formal processes as the only option, particularly when they are under pressure and looking for immediate ways to cope, and angry enough to see their situation as only ever being black and white.

It’s a situation that has become more common in recent years in the wake of recession and the demands on organisations of all types to re-model themselves in line with austerity, economic realities and the disruption of digital technologies.

The resulting redundancies, and shifting workloads and responsibilities, have led to tensions, not always immediately visible, but building up in the background between individuals and whole teams. And where is the outlet for the feelings of injustice and frustration?

For the most part, employees don’t want to be seen as the origin of the conflict, or increasingly, of any kind of negativity in the context of an organisation already dealing with enough problems. There is an alternative model that can short circuit the negative currents of conflict for employers.

Workplace mediation in practice

Workplace mediation provides a simple, informal but structured method of avoiding any serious dispute cases. It has been in use by employers for more than 30 years, but only at low levels and continues to be something of a less-known option.

The approach can come in different forms, but the essential strengths are that it is a step removed from formal processes, that sense of there being “no way back”.

Mediation is voluntary for both sides of the conflict. It is also informal, the process is owned by the participants, and the stages involved can be flexible. Importantly, the non-threatening nature of mediation means it can be introduced quickly and early on before a dispute becomes more serious. It can also still be used even if formal procedures are already under way.

Workplace mediation can be delivered by internal staff trained in mediation techniques working alongside an experienced mediator – but often the approach is most effective when professional mediators are used, because of the complexity and sensitivity of issues, as well as the need for a guaranteed impartiality and confidentiality.

An external perspective is also useful in terms of providing a pre-mediation stage, providing an independent view on whether or not it is suitable for the situation.

The standard form of mediation is a structure where the two members of staff in conflict meet the mediator individually first and are then brought together into the same room, both given a specific amount of time to have their say, uninterrupted, and then the chance to respond.

Conversations are confidential rather than subject to official record. It is not a mediator-led process. The mediators are not looked to for judgement or answers, but only to facilitate a conversation in a safe and respectful environment, a sharing of different views, and to assess needs and help to negotiate ways forward.

In this way, people who had seen themselves as being at polarised positions can start to move together and deteriorating relationships can be rebuilt.

The structure helps to drain harsh emotions and restore some balance. There is always a focus on moving on from what’s happened – that’s all consigned to the past – and what can happen in the future, what’s possible in terms of cooperation.

Participants need to be encouraged to be as honest as they can and to avoid exaggeration, which can be unfair to the mediator who is relying on working on a basis of the truth.

Where the initial situation doesn’t allow for this kind of open conversation, organisations can use shuttle mediation – employees don’t need to be in the same room together for the first stage of the conversation.

Evidence suggests that silo working, combined with organisational change and shifting of responsibilities, has led to an increasing sense of team loyalty and grievance, and as a result, an increased demand for inter-team mediation.

In these cases, the mediation is based around working with individuals to explore their issues – rather than the team as a whole, where there’s the danger of encouraging more tribal and inflexible attitudes – and agreeing next steps with them before bringing teams together to facilitate a way forward.