Workplace mediation skills for accredited mediators

11 April 2021

Workplace mediation follows the same principles as mediation in other contexts, but in my experience there are also a number of significant differences. It is important to be aware of these differences and to adapt your mediator skills if you wish to work effectively as a workplace mediator.

I trained as a mediator initially in 1988. The context of my training was conflict and disputes between trade unions and management in apartheid South Africa. Trust between the parties was very low although mediators from the Independent Mediation Service of South Africa (IMSSA) were accepted as credible neutral third parties. I worked on the assumption that because I was an IMSSA mediator and had been chosen as the mediator I didn’t need to do much more than be myself and follow the processes I had been taught. We were discouraged from having any contact with parties before the mediation, and the mediation meetings tended to take place in a largely private meeting format. Mediation often took place in the context of a strike or lockout, and although facilitative in style the bargaining process was very positional.

I subsequently trained further as a workplace mediator in the UK in 2004. I was immediately struck by the differences between this approach to mediation and what I was used to. What I learned at that time has greatly enhanced my mediation practice, not only enabling me to mediate a wider range of disputes but also to be a more effective mediator in any context.

I learned that to be an effective mediator I needed to work much more consciously on the relationships between myself and the parties. Although the parties have chosen you and appear to have faith in your neutrality as the mediator, unless you actively establish rapport with the parties before the day of the mediation and maintain it throughout the mediation it is more difficult to be assertive about the process and to facilitate exploration and bargaining in a manner that transcends positional approaches and moves the parties closer to the more effective interest-based approaches. In workplace mediation parties have often been ‘strongly encouraged' to attend the mediation, which means they are not participating entirely voluntarily and they might not have actually chosen you as the mediator.

I also learned from workplace mediation training that I needed to be more subtle in my process choices as a mediator. Instead of arranging a one day process and expecting that matters would be resolved in one day, I realised that when you are working with people who work together every day and who expect or are expected by their employer to continue doing so, a one-day process can often be too intense. Instead, in workplace mediation I follow a staged and flexible process, meeting the parties individually before the day of the mediation. The ‘day of the mediation’ may also be spread over time in sessions of a few hours.

Of course, the content of a workplace mediation differs from employment, labour management or commercial mediations, in that it is focused on the working relationship, what has gone wrong, and what needs to be done by the parties to restore it. Issues of discrimination, equality, diversity and inclusion often make their way onto the agenda of workplace mediations, and there may also be a higher emotional content to these mediations. The employer is naturally interested to know about how the mediation went and about the outcome. Managing expectations in relation to confidentiality is thus crucial.

So, if you are an accredited mediator and would like to offer workplace mediation services, join us for this one-day training session to hear more about the similarities and differences between the mediation process in which you have already been trained and the process that is suitable for workplace mediation.

- Felicity Steadman