Workplace mediation is now a commonly used and effective process to resolve conflict in the workplace. Organisations may use external mediators or create a panel of in-house mediators sourced from staff within the organisation. Sometimes they may have a combination of both approaches.
The argument for internal mediators can seem persuasive. A training organisation can provide a relatively short mediation course and quite quickly your business has a pool of in-house mediators who can deal with workplace conflict. This seems like a great solution, but does it actually deliver? Looking positively, the training of internal mediators will raise the level of general conflict management and communication skills within the organisation. However, there are a number of important factors that are often overlooked.
Independence and impartiality
One of the main reasons that mediation is effective is that the mediator is independent and impartial and, importantly, this is also how they are perceived by the parties involved in the dispute. Is a fellow member of staff, mediating in the dispute, likely to be viewed as equally independent and impartial? Parties engaged in mediation may already know the in-house mediator or be required to work with them in the future.
Will an internal mediator, possibly only working on very occasional cases, be as effective as a professional external mediator who is experienced and working regularly? While some may be effective, even when they have the requisite experience and skills they may be seen as representing the organisation. A 2002 research report published by Bingham and Pitts in the Negotiation Journal found that external mediators achieved higher workplace conflict resolution rates than in-house mediators. The dynamics of workplace mediation are normally very sensitive and it is important to establish the credentials and experience of any mediator assigned to a case.
Confidentiality is one of the most important components of the mediation process. Will disputing parties have more confidence in the confidentiality of the process when in-house or external mediators are employed? The mediator encourages disputants to be open about how they see and feel about a situation, and this may be less easy to achieve when an in-house mediator is engaged.
One of the main reasons cited for using internal mediators is to save money. Organisations setting up an in-house workplace mediation scheme need to meet the initial training costs and are then responsible for the continuing support and development of the mediators. The mediation panel needs to be coordinated by someone.
Normal staff turnover between organisations can be high and it is possible that a trained member of staff may leave after having done no or a very small number of cases. The staff costs of internal mediators working on cases, training and fulfilling the requirements of their role are often overlooked. Some businesses use two internal mediators to co-mediate on a case, again considerably adding to costs.
The significant initial and ongoing costs associated with an in-house workplace mediation scheme are often underestimated and likely to be considerably more than an external mediator used as and when necessary.
A vital service
These factors may result in employees having less confidence in workplace mediation and opting not to use the process when it may have been very helpful. Similarly, if staff do engage in the process and find it does not meet their expectations, they are less likely to use or recommend it in the future.
While some form of employee conflict training is likely to be helpful to deal with minor disputes, it is essential that access to an external mediation service is available. If an organisation chooses to continue with an in-house mediation scheme, an option for staff to request an external mediator should be available. A careful review of these factors should result in the company having an improved workplace mediation service and a significant reduction in expenditure.
Terry Leigh is a London-based mediation consultant