Workplace mediation - a strategy for effectively managing conflict in the workplace

21 February 2013

Sharon Wakeford, a workplace and employment mediator, gave a presentation to clients of Bowman Gilfilan entitled “Workplace Mediation: a strategy for effectively managing conflict in the workplace”. Read about it below and see the PowerPoint slides in the Resources section of the website.

The purpose of the presentation was to introduce delegates to ‘workplace mediation’, a new and dynamic form of mediation which is being widely used round the world. Workplace mediation is gaining increasing prominence in South Africa as organisations become more aware of the benefits of tackling conflict at an early stage before disputes are formalised, and as both individuals and organisations are looking for new and more effective ways of managing workplace conflict.

More specifically, the presentation sought to develop delegates’ understanding of the principles underpinning workplace mediation; the nature and structure of the process (and how it differs from traditional employment mediation); the types of issues it can address, when it is appropriate to use this style of mediation; and its benefits. 

What workplace mediation is

Workplace mediation is a voluntary, confidential and ‘without prejudice’ process in which an impartial third party works with individuals who are in conflict or dispute to explore, understand and appreciate their differences with a view to re-establishing and/or improving their working relationship.

How workplace mediation differs from traditional employment/labour mediation

The key differences between employment mediation and workplace mediation are: the types of issues typically dealt with; the timing of the mediation; and the role of the mediator in relation to process, content and the engagement with and between the parties.

Traditional employment mediation (as experienced in the CCMA and bargaining councils) tends to be more focused on the parties’ legal rights and bargaining positions as settlement is sought. Workplace mediation, on the other hand, has a strongly facilitative and transformative style in that emphasis is given to improving understanding and communication between the parties to the conflict.

As such, a key role of the mediator is to help the parties effectively engage with each other and have the ‘missing and difficult conversations’ which they have not been having, and which conversations need to take place if they are going to rebuild their relationship and be able to work together more constructively in the future.

When workplace mediation is appropriate

Workplace mediation is most appropriate early in the life of the conflict, where the people involved are committed to resolving the issues and are keen to pursue a different approach to the traditional approaches such as lodging a grievance or using disciplinary processes.

Issues which workplace mediation can address

Performance, strained relationships, issues of diversity, discrimination and values (organisation and individual), bullying and harassment, organisational change, incompatibility or personality clashes, conflict arising from mergers and acquisitions, disputes between and within teams.

The workplace mediation process

The process involves three stages which include:

§  Individual meetings between the mediator and each party to uncover the issues, needs and feelings and secure parties’ agreement to participate in the process.

§  A joint meeting between the mediator and both parties in which the parties have the opportunity to express their feelings and concerns directly to each other, to explore the issues giving rise to the conflict or dispute between them and work towards a mutually acceptable agreement.

§  Follow-up by the mediator with each party to see whether the agreement has held and establish whether any changes to the agreement or further support may be necessary.

Benefits of workplace mediation

§  A positive way of managing conflict – the process addresses underlying causes of the conflict and not just the manifestations;

§  Restores relationships at work;

§  Prevents conflict escalating into a dispute;

§  Resolves disputes before they are determined by the CCMA (and which determinations will not address the underlying causes of the conflict or the needs of the parties);

§  Saves actual costs and associated costs such as management time;

§  Supports line management, HR and shop stewards;

§  Improves morale and productivity;

§  Reduces risk to both the organisation and the individuals concerned (the more senior the  employee, the greater the risks); and

§  Models effective conflict management skills and capabilities.

What organisations need to be thinking about

Given the high incidence of workplace conflict and the costs associated with this, organisations would to do well to reflect on the effectiveness of their existing strategies and approaches for dealing with conflict, and the extent to which they support the development of a conflict management culture in their workplace.  

For organisations that would like to be more effective in dealing with conflict, the following strategies could be considered:

§  Training in-house workplace mediators (and setting up an in-house mediation system); and/or

§  Using external workplace mediators (for executive level conflict or where using an in-house mediator would not be appropriate or practical); and

§  Building capacity of line managers to handle conflict more effectively i.e. skills training.

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