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Fact or fiction: The truth about workplace mediation

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Workplace mediation is quickly becoming a sought-after method by which to restore the workplace following an investigation or in some cases to avoid a formal investigation altogether. More frequently, it is being included in the dispute resolution mechanisms and policies in many organizations and institutions. Unfortunately, however, there is still some confusion about what mediation is and what it is not which has led to some resistance in the utilization of the process. Here are some commonly held views which are thought to be fact but are actually fiction.

1. Mediation is a counselling session – Many persons seem to think that a mediator is a counsellor and mediation is just for persons to talk about their problems and feel better. While the parties usually do have an opportunity to share the issues that concern them and that is often part of the resolution process, mediation is not therapy. Instead, it is a means of identifying underlying issues with a view to solving a problem between disputants. For example, if there is a concern of intimidation, bullying or even unwelcomed comments in the workplace, it may potentially be a communication or personality issue. Before or instead of proceeding to a formal investigation, it may be possible to bring the parties together to voice those concerns in order to create understanding and to find a resolution that improves the interaction going forward. Similarly, if a formal investigation into a complaint of harassment has been carried out, irrespective of the finding, it is likely that the work environment will need some form of restoration in order to maintain staff morale or ensure continued productivity. Mediation can facilitate that restoration.

2. Mediation means forfeiting an investigation – It is sometimes thought that if employees or an employer opt for mediation, then there is no scope or room for an investigation. That is not the case. It is true that the hope in some cases is to avoid an investigation through the use of mediation. However, if for whatever reason mediation is unsuccessful in resolving some disputes, it is usually possible to proceed to a formal investigation. In the same way, it is also possible for the mediation to take place after the investigation has been completed and a determination made. The approach simply depends on the circumstances.

3. Mediation can’t help when there is a power imbalance – Workplace disputes very often involve issues between managers and lower level employees. In those cases, the manager may be perceived as having more “power” than the other party. Power may also manifest in other ways, for example where one employee is more vocal than the other or has a more imposing personality. It is not always necessary to resort to a formal investigation in those cases. Sometimes, all a person needs is to be heard. A skilled mediator will ensure that each party is given an opportunity to participate in the process which allows for collaboration in a way that may not have otherwise been possible where there are power dynamics. Even if an investigation is conducted, a mediator has the skills to effectively manage those dynamics to aid in restoring the workplace following the investigation.

4. Mediation exposes employees to potential reprisal – Many employees fear that if they engage in mediation and say how they really feel, they are leaving themselves vulnerable to reprisal. This is an understandable concern. However, the whole point of mediation is that the disputants not only say what’s on their mind, but they also work together to decide if and how the situation can be resolved or improved. It has been our experience that this collaborative atmosphere, where no one person is being attacked or feels as if they are being investigated, lessens the likelihood of reprisal and improves the chance of positive change in the workplace.

Workplace mediation is a process that allows employees, union representatives or other parties connected to an organization to resolve their dispute with the help of a neutral third party. More importantly, the process of discussing issues and working together to find a solution often results in improved conditions in the workplace, whether in the form of policy reform, procedural developments or simply improved relationships and communication. The benefits of workplace mediation are being realized more and more.