How to Prepare Effectively for Workplace Mediation
As a tool for resolving workplace conflicts and disputes, workplace mediation is preferred in many cases to formal grievance procedures and employment tribunals. Ensuring that all involved are adequately prepared for workplace mediation, however, is vital.
Ensuring that all involved are adequately prepared for workplace mediation, however, is vital. Tony Munday shares his own thoughts and experiences on how this should be carried out.
If conducted properly, workplace mediation can allow for effective resolution of disputes that would otherwise be long and costly to unravel. When planning to engage in workplace mediation, what should parties and legal counsel keep in mind?
Language is important. My language as a mediator, throughput the process, must be clean in NLP terms. I do not refer to ‘parties‘, since that is an adversarial term. I speak of ‘participants’. That is a neutral term. The venue selected is also important. It must be neutral and provide the appropriate context for the mediation process.
When I am engaged by an organisation, I do not require a perspective about the matters at hand, because that viewpoint itself could be a subjective one. I need to develop my own understanding of the issues, based entirely on what the participants tell me. The skill of active listening is essential – both verbal and nonverbal communication; what is said, what is not said, and how it is said. These are key aspects for a mediator to consider and adopt.
What potential difficulties can be ironed out at this stage?
The mediator must confirm that the participants are engaging voluntarily and understand the confidentiality of what occurs and is said in the process.
Once mediation itself is underway, what should participants and counsel keep in mind at the beginning of proceedings?
In my direct experience, participants are often traumatised people. They have endured months, sometimes years of workplace conflict and are uncertain of the process and the protocols involved. Even more concerning, they may have previously been subjected to forms of mediation that have caused them lasting psychological damage.
In your practice, you include a unique ‘icebreaker’ stage as part of workplace mediation. What does this entail?
I have enhanced the efficacy of the ACAS system of mediation; that is individual meetings with participants, followed by a joint meeting. I refer to my career in policing as being the rationale for this unique aspect of workplace mediation. The mediation process is designed to elicit their perspective on events, rather than respond to a pre- determined agenda of my own. Creating authentic rapport, and engendering trust and confidence in my fairness, objectivity, neutrality, and independence was essential if the interview was to be meaningful.
Language is important. My language as a mediator, throughput the process, must be clean in NLP terms.
In the individual meeting and joint meeting, participants are entitled to the pastoral support of a friend or staff association representative. In the icebreaker stage, the meetings are solely between me and individual participants. We do not discuss the matters subject of the mediation; the purpose is to establish the authentic rapport I previously described. I explain my professional background and its relevance to mediation. The participant describes their previous experience of mediation and the lasting impact it has had upon them. I resolve the issues raised and signpost to them how the ACAS model of mediation will be conducted.
What benefits does this offer to participants and counsel?
In the feedback I get from participants and from my own direct experience, the key benefit for me as a mediator is that we are no longer meeting as strangers at the individual meeting. The key factor in developing that essential, authentic rapport is that I get to know the real person, not merely their role.
I schedule the individual meeting two days after the icebreaker. Participants reflect on their issues in the light of their trust and confidence in me. This promotes a deeper engagement with me at the individual meeting, rather than at the superficial level that would otherwise be the case. The depth and detail of the discussions in the individual meeting, according to the feedback I receive, would not have been possible without the icebreaker and their time for deep reflection and subsequent distillation of the core ingredients of their issues.
Direct feedback from a recent participant affirms these benefits: “As a direct result of the icebreaker, I am able to tell you things about me, and the situation, that would not have been possible if we had met for the first time at the individual meeting. I developed real trust and confidence in you, to do so. I had time to reflect and come to this considered position, in a way that I know would not have happened when first meeting you at the individual meeting.”
In the icebreaker, I signpost for participants how the process will operate. The facilitated development of ground rules for the joint meeting is an aspect that reassures the participants that their wellbeing matters. This is relevant where the dynamics of power are operating among the participants. Also, where there have been concerns raised about bullying and harassment, participants may be fearful of being in the same room as each other. The change in state from the traumatised person I meet for the first time at an icebreaker, compared to their authentic self that they present at the individual meeting, is stark and positive.
The key factor in developing that essential, authentic rapport is that I get to know the real person, not merely their role.
Let me give an example of the benefits of an icebreaker. In October 2021, I was conducting a mediation of five members of a senior leadership team for a large organisation. The issues had persisted for three years. One of the participants, a senior manager, told me that she was so grateful for my explaining the ACAS model of mediation and how we conduct ourselves throughout. She told me she was aged 34. Her previous experience of ‘mediation’ was aged seventeen. She was at school and was being mercilessly bullied. Her Headmaster told her that he would arrange mediation for her and the bully.
The ‘mediation’ consisted of her and the bully sitting opposite to each other, whilst the headmaster sat in a corner. She was harangued by the bully for an hour, without intervention from the headmaster. After one hour, they were both told to leave his office. Once outside, she was beaten up again by the bully. She had no trust in the headmaster and for seventeen years, she had erroneously believed that this outrageous nonsense was ‘mediation’! She was relieved beyond words that this burden had been lifted from her after all that time.
There is a postscript to this story. In May 2022, I was in another part of the organisation. It was a neutral venue for another mediation. I was walking along a corridor. The door to a room was open, and a lady in glasses smiled and said “Hello.” I said “Hello,” but was nonplussed as I did not recognise her. She said: “You don’t recognise me, do you?“ and, though I realised she was one of the previous participants. I admitted that I did not.
She took off her glasses. I immediately recognised her as one of the five handed mediations from October. She said, “Thank you so much for what you did for us all last year. We are all getting on great and enjoying work.”
How does your professional background benefit your work on mediation?
In my career as a police officer, I conducted many interviews with victims, witnesses and suspects. I also interviewed colleagues across a range of matters. Often, people were fearful and traumatised. It was essential for me to connect with them in a human way, for them to feel comfortable to talk about their issues. I learnt not to prejudge anyone and to actively listen to what was said and to take a more holistic view on communication. This mindset is critical. Building authentic rapport and being independent of the organisation that commissions me are vitally important.
This expertise has proved invaluable to me as a mediator. A CEO whose company entrusts me with mediation says: “The icebreaker provides the opportunity to address an anxiety, develop confidence in the process and the mediator, and most importantly establish the process is a safe place.”
Do you have any other comments to make regarding the opening stages of workplace mediation?
Oscar Wilde and Will Rogers are attributed to have said: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Studies show that a person will form their first impression somewhere between seven seconds and two minutes after meeting another. It behoves all mediators to ensure that the first impression of them by a participant is as positive and engaging as possible.
Tony Munday, Director
Achieve Success UK
Tel: +44 79058 68058
“I am an independent ACAS-accredited workplace mediator and am similarly registered with the Civil Mediation Council. I was a senior leader during my police career. I was also trained in conflict resolution.
I am a published author, having written ‘The ESSENTIAL Heart of a Leader’. This comprises twelve steps to becoming the leader that people trust, respect and follow. The locus of my mediation is therefore on conflicted senior teams. I can empathise with the challenges and context of leadership. I am also aware of the corrosive impact upon the wider organisation.”