The Importance of Mediation to Workplace Conflict Resolution
Changing attitudes towards business management and post-pandemic litigation backlogs have combined to contribute to a surge in interest for workplace mediation. But how suitable is it as a method of internal conflict resolution? In this feature we hear from TeKay Brown-Taylor, owner and president of Brownstone Mediation Services (BMS), who draws on her considerable experience to comment on the merits of workplace mediation and what organisations should be aware of when approaching dispute resolution.
Speaking broadly, in what ways does mediation differ from a typical grievance resolution process when it comes to conflicts in the workplace, and why might mediation often be a better fit for resolving them?
Mediation is an alternative to the traditional grievance process – it is a supplement to and not a substitute for. Both are voluntary, mediation being more along the informal lines and the grievance process more of a formal process with specific procedural actions typically guided by policy. One has an impact on the other, but the other does not necessarily have an impact on the one; more plainly put, the mediation may have an impact on the grievance process if a full agreement is successfully reached, possibly preventing the need for a participant to seek further resolve through formal channels.
However, if an issue is worked through a formal grievance option, the results should not have a direct impact on the outcome of the mediation. This is because unlike a grievance process, mediation is not about who is right or who is wrong, nor about determining violation of policy or substantiating innocence or guilt. Mediation is future-oriented; how do participants resolve, fix, improve, engage, act, do and think differently from its conclusion?
Though mediation can be conducted at any stage of workplace disharmony, it is most effective when conducted early, which is why it benefits so much from being an informal process. It can be implemented as soon as a problematic issue arises between persons where the issues can be explored and addressed openly and candidly head-on. Often, the mediation is the first time where parties have had a real opportunity to listen and be listened to in a safe and private setting intent on getting to the centre of the issues impacting the workplace experience.
The typical conflict style exhibited by individuals and leaders in the workplace is conflict avoidance and issues that are not managed well early are certain to manifest into more serious hurt, offenses, unprofessionalism, mismanaged conflict, bad conduct, and bad behaviour. Its common issues that surface through the grievance process have been ongoing problems whether perceived or real and now escalated. People often wait to file a grievance for a number of reasons; hoping the issue will resolve itself, uncertain if they have a legitimate complaint and unaware of the proper channels to pursue, fear retaliation will make the situation worse; not seeking recourse until they are mentally and emotionally exhausted and have reached their last straw. All reasons to stress a workplace culture of early resolution and Mediation versus reliance on the grievance process to address workplace conflict.
Mediation in most cases will usually be the best first option. However, it is not always the best option overall. As mentioned above, it is future-focused. If the individuals participating need to remain in relationship, repair a broken working relationship and reconcile the issues, then mediation in most instances is best. On the other hand, if a party is seeking justice for wrongdoing it is important to acknowledge that mediation is not a fact finding and disciplinary process. It is also worth noting that all rights or entitlements to engage other resolution channels that are available to a party before mediation are also available to the party after mediation, whether successful or not.
Then there is the elephant in the room. As HR usually owns the grievance process, impartiality may be questioned. The benefit of the service we offer is that we provide external third-party mediation and other ADR tools in cases where HR or an internal leader serving as the mediator may not be viewed as equally independent and impartial to the matter. Additionally, the initial and ongoing cost to maintain an internal mediation program is often underestimated and possibly considerably more to upkeep than outsourcing an external mediator with BMS when you consider the logistics, coordination, costs, training and continuing education.
How should a mediator establish trust and rapport with the subjects of workplace mediation?
Establishing trust and rapport is essential to mediation starting off on the right foot. At BMS, we place a great deal of emphasis on empowering the participants to determine if mediation is the best option and being intentional in determining whether we are the most capable assist. Our approach is: even if you do not choose us, choose mediation.
Most cases start off with an initial meeting with the HR leader and senior leader of the parties for organisational goals and context as to how the conflict is impacting the workplace, which are usually macro concerns in comparison to the individual and personal issues the parties may bring to the mediation. We go the extra mile also meeting with each participant 1:1 in a brief pre-mediation meeting to discuss the overview of the mediation process, expectations, logistics and the questionnaire pre-work. This is where the participant is also given the opportunity to address any concerns he or she may have about participating in the process, which is especially important for our first-time mediation clients.
Additional resources, frequently asked questions and tips are provided in follow-on communications, in addition to a bio of the mediator’s experience and credentials. We never walk into a mediation talking to the party for the first time. Most often, the hardest part of our work is getting the parties to the mediation table, more so than helping to navigate the conflict mine itself.
What accommodations should be made if one or more parties involved in a conflict are resistant to the mediation process?
Educating a party on the benefits of participating in mediation is the best way to contend with resistance to the process. Once parties are fully informed about the many advantages that come with participating in an ADR process, he or she is most often usually open to the option.
In what ways have you developed your practice as a mediator with the benefit of experience?
As a mediator, I have been fortunate to work in many spaces as a neutral third party. I personally have experience in several mediation categories, including juvenile delinquency, peer, general and civil, divorce, family, domestic violence, equal employment opportunity and of course workplace mediation. At the heart of it all is conflict resolution. With almost 20 years in HR workplace mediation is where I am a natural but family mediation is where I operate with a deeper sense of obligation. It is my belief that no family belongs in a courtroom pitted as plaintiff and defendant.
I believe it is also important that young offender systems have programs for reform that include mediation and other restorative justice practices so that youth are allowed an opportunity to right their wrong before being thrust into a legal system with criminal backgrounds. As such, encourage schools to institute peer mediation programs for students to enable them to gain conflict capacity and interpersonal skills early.
It is a fact that the most experienced mediators are also the most skilled mediators. As mediators, we are communication and conflict specialists. Expertise equates to the degree of experience, with the most experienced being able to creatively facilitate difficult dialogue no matter the category.
In your opinion, how will the field of mediation develop in the coming years, particularly in regard to resolving workplace conflicts?
Thanks to high-profile cases and settlements, mediation is becoming more and more mainstream. It is no longer the ‘alternative’ dispute resolution option. Mediation is beginning to establish itself as the most productive, most successful and most non-adversarial way of resolving issues and disputes. Thanks to the recent pandemic, many courts are so backlogged that mediation provides a necessary relief. This means mediation is serving a need!
Even before the pandemic, courts were beginning to establish ADR programs, recognising the higher likelihood of success when mandatory mediation required parties to make an attempt to resolve issues on their own before using the resources of the court. These same benefits have flowed over into traditional workplace grievance processes. Mediation is now a key part of many organisation’s HR policies and processes that aim to resolve issues between staff informally. BMS is an HR firm and the heart of our existence is helping organisations identify the right tools and solutions to drive better workplace experiences through its people relations, and I over many years working across several industries have determined mediation is one of our best and most reliable tools.
About TeKay Brown-Taylor
TeKay Brown-Taylor is the owner and president of BMS. Having run her organisation for almost five years, TeKay has coached and advised thousands of employees and leaders on workplace-related issues across a range of fields, including the academic, corporate, non-profit and military sectors. As a thought leader often sought out for her insightful perspectives on issues of inclusion and conflict management, TeKay has received a number of accolades, including the CSRA Business League’s ‘Woman Entrepreneur of the Year’, Perry Broadcasting’s ‘Business Professional of the Year’ and the peer-selected ‘Woman Making a Difference’ corporate award.
Brownstone Mediation Services LLC (BMS) is a human relations (HR) consulting firm with a solutions-focused niche in ADR strategies aimed at turning people problems into transformative learning experiences. BMS has been recognised for three consecutive years as one of Georgia Business Journal’s ‘Best of Georgia’ for Business and Creatives Services: Mediation and HR Consulting. BMS operates on the principal belief that equipping an employee with the confidence, skills, and capacity will enable them to become leaders that help build better workplaces and in turn better organisations.
Brownstone Mediation Services LLC
207 Hudson Trace Suite 105,
Augusta, GA 30907, USA
Tel: +1 706-955-2031