A jargon-free FAQ for people who have been asked to take part in a workplace mediation.
What is mediation?
You’ll often see mediation described as ‘a process by which an impartial third party helps parties in dispute reach mutually acceptable agreements’. Another way of saying that is, mediator is someone who helps you have a difficult conversation with someone, and helps you to iron out your differences and agree how to can have a more constructive future.
Who is a mediator?
A mediator may be someone inside the organisation, or someone brought in from outside. Either way, they will not be involved in the situation or know those involved. They should have had proper training to mediate! Workplace mediators will not wear an ‘HR’ or ‘Union’ or ‘Legal’ hat: if they have these other roles, they will hang that hat up before they start mediating.
What does impartial mean, in practice?
Everyone knows that impartial means ‘doesn’t take sides’. This doesn’t mean ‘coldly neutral’ – rather, it means they will work fairly and positively for each person involved. It actually means ‘multi-partial’ – not on no-one’s side, but on everyone’s side. Everyone has the same chance and encouragement to speak and put forward ideas, everyone has the same chance to listen and understand each other. A mediator won’t judge or evaluate who is right or wrong, reasonable or unreasonable, and they won’t tell you what to do. You decide what you are willing to do, and what you can agree to.
So, they don’t take sides, they don’t say who’s right or wrong, and they don’t come up with solutions. What do they actually do apart from getting people together?
A good question! What it boils down to is that mediators “create a safe environment”. This means that they control, manage and ‘own’ the meeting. They say who can speak, when, to whom, and about what. They might do this quite tightly if tempers are flaring, or they might loosen the reins and sit in silence just listening, if people are talking usefully to each other.
Mediators use a range of skills to help people to talk honestly about what they have experienced, what they want, and what they feel. They should be very understanding and empathetic: if you get angry or upset, or find things difficult to say, they will help you manage those feelings.
In unmediated meetings, conversations are often more about what you say, than what you hear, so a key role for a mediator is to slow conversations down so that everything gets proper attention. They may ask you to say what you need to in a way that enables the other person to hear it, rather than, for example, being blaming and accusing.
Why should I choose mediation?
Because mediation is not seeking a culprit, or scapegoat, it can help rebuild relationships and restore broken communication and trust. Grievances and disciplinaries can be effective in certain situations, but for things such as a breakdown in communication or a loss of mutual professional respect, mediation avoids the bureaucracy, the blame and the pain of being involved with a formal complaint. It’s fast, free at the point of delivery, and it’s private.
How long does it take?
Normally, a mediation will be over within a week of you agreeing to it. You’ll meet with the mediator for a private conversation for a couple of hours, then get together with the other person involved – with the same mediator there – for a meeting that might last around five hours. It’s all over in one session – but you can always come back to the mediation ‘table’ at any time.
What is the status of confidentiality in mediation?
What is talked about is kept between the people involved, and the mediator. It may be appropriate to share some of the outcomes with other colleagues but only if both of you agree to it. Nothing goes on your personnel file and a mediator can’t be involved in a formal investigation or ET, should that arise down the line (which is should not).
What kinds of things can be raised in mediation?
Most kinds of disputes can be mediated as long as those involved want to find a solution. So mediation is used for breakdowns in working relationships, communication difficulties between colleagues, feelings of being bullied or harassed.
What happens if there is a grievance in place?
If a formal complaint has been made, this needs to be “on hold” while the mediation takes place. It’s important to know that mediation may also recommended after a grievance or disciplinary, as a way of getting people back to working together and of repairing damaged relationships – so it’s better to try mediation first, not last.
Most people say they feel better after a mediation – in fact, a lot better. They would recommend mediation to their colleagues, and they’d use the process again. The problem is, you won’t know that this is the case until you’ve tried it!