Do you need mediation?

How do you handle disagreements between employees or, worse yet, between an employee and supervisor? One option is to offer mediation. Giving the warring parties space to talk and be heard can go a long way towards diffusing the situation. If you can get the parties to come up with a mutual agreement on how to get past the disagreement and create a blueprint for moving forward, you have made a significant contribution towards improving the workplace for everyone (and potentially averted a formal complaint or even a lawsuit).

However, there are some issues to consider before trying to get the parties to “yes”.

Ensure that everyone understands that the process is entirely voluntary. Employees may feel that they have no choice but to agree to a mediation session. Stress that there are other options (based upon your employee handbook/union rules, administrative policies) and there will be no retribution if they do not want to participate. To help create buy-in, you can stress that a mediation is usually faster and the agreement is crafted by the participants rather than being imposed by a third party.

Ensure the parties involved understand how a mediation works. They may confuse mediation with arbitration and even, yes, meditation. There are a number of good resources at that explain the mediation process.

Recognize that workplace mediation is not unlike family mediation; co-workers can act more like aggrieved siblings than professionals and there may be power differentials, especially when a supervisor and subordinate is involved. Be aware of the undercurrents and make sure that agreements are fair, achievable and equitable.

Traditional or problem-solving mediation is focused on results; a measurable and enforceable agreement between the parties. Transformative mediation is more focused on the process, arguing that the very act of talking and listening is often enough to change behaviors without having to come to an agreement. This happens through empowerment – the ability to define the issues and find solutions without guidance and Recognition – empathy for the other party. You may find that one of these approaches is more applicable to the situation or your work culture than the other. If an agreement is not achieved, don’t assume that the effort was wasted. Quite often the process is more important than the outcome.

Mediation can be effective when employees feel that they have been treated in a hostile or unfair manner. I had the opportunity to work with an employee who felt that she had been unfairly reprimanded by her supervisor and retaliated against. The two parties agreed to mediation as a first step to address the issue. Each side was given the opportunity to describe the situation and explain the impact by using “I” statements. As the mediator I asked clarifying questions and used active listening and reframing  techniques in order to allow the parties to understand the differing perspectives of the same event. It became clear to both of them that miscommunication, differing understanding of policies and procedures, and bad timing was at the heart of the issue.  Together they were able to craft a plan that included additional training and a different way of communicating in order to prevent further misunderstandings. One of the additional benefits of the experience was that it helped to “humanize” the supervisor for the new employee.

Mediation is just one of many tools available to help address and reduce workplace conflict. Certified mediators are available in almost all states. Both and offer resources and contact lists. If you are interested in becoming a mediator, many private programs and colleges offer 40 hour certificate programs.


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