Why Companies Need to Establish A Workplace Mediation Program

Learn more about how to effectively manage conflict in the workplace.

1/25/20230 min read

Recently, I spent hours listening to a friend about his work problems. Without wanting to reveal his identity, let's just say that the problem stemmed from feedback shared during a meeting. While my friend considered the possibility that no bad intentions were attached to the feedback, still, he and others took it personally. This brief tension in the meeting led to a series of consequences that eventually led to his termination.

While I feel very bad for my friend, I refrain from making judgements because the boss involved in this story is also a friend. What I hated about this situation was (1) it didn’t have to escalate to this, (2) I (or someone else) could have helped if I knew about it early enough, and last but definitely the biggest anxiety on my part is (3) that this kind of a problem happens all the time!

In the last two months, I have already spoken to over a dozen people with workplace problems. As workers return to office only with several little (or large) changes to how things used to be, it becomes an environment that is susceptible to conflict. Conflict that may have started small (such as in this case) but have alarming escalated to situations like harassment, resignations, termination, health issues in the workplace and list goes on.

What is perhaps more concerning is that these could all be avoided with proper intervention with processes like mediation or conflict coaching. This prompted me to write this article in order to raise awareness on how essential it is for workplaces to have professional mediators and coaches who can guide employees through anxieties and tensions at work. I see this particularly useful for government agencies in the process of transition from having newly appointed leaders with newly issued mandates.

Let me present a few arguments for creating a workplace mediation program:

1. A workplace mediator is a neutral third party who helps to facilitate communication between conflicting parties in order to resolve disputes and improve relationships. It should be noted that intense emotions are often heightened during conflicts at work. It can become difficult for individuals involved in such situations to keep a rational perspective or think objectively – which makes having a neutral third-party present even more crucial when trying to resolve an issue amicably. I don’t want to sound over-confident but I do believe that if my friend and his boss were given a safe space to express themselves, they could have found a way to resolve their tension. Like I said, I also knew the boss so I have witnessed how she can be open and supportive of her people. Somewhere along their 6-month history of working together, they unfortunately, took a wrong turn that caused both some level of pain or hurt so they never looked back.

2. People will tend to triangulate and the conflict which could eventually spread through the entire organization. From that one meeting, the conflict grew. Parties started to share their hurt with 1 or 2 friends in the organization. From here, the group begins to multiply as these 1 or 2 friends also begin to share your story with others. We know too well how fast rumors spread. Before you know it, there are factions supporting the staff or the manager. Rumors also tend to exaggerate facts. Certain parties will now appear as monsters as the rumors continue to spread. This is what happened to my friends. Each of them were portrayed as unreasonable, selfish, power-grabbing, attention-seeking childish people. Again, I know both people so I can attest that they are also reliable, respectful, goal-oriented, and intelligent professionals. Unfortunately, in organizations affected by conflict, only the negative characteristics are typically shared. I heard descriptions like “arrogant” and “childish” said about both my friends. It didn’t need to reach this point. A workplace mediator could have assessed the situation, and allowed space for direct communication of the two parties to resolve the issue.

3. Conflict is lurking within the organization with negative impacts that go unnoticed or unrecognized. As the conflict led to a triangulation of parties, new issues came to light. The issues were already there but stayed hidden for months. The tension brought them to the surface. But a conflict need not be surfaced for us to feel its negative effects such as resentment, avoidance, and other stressors. So when another manager says “Yeah, I find her arrogant, too. That’s why I just ignored her requests,” top management should be concerned. This is no longer about the parties because it has begun to affect the productivity of the company. How many projects in your organization are not progressing well because one manager does not like another manager? A workplace mediation program does not only handle overt conflicts. It is also a space for conflict coaching or a pre-emptive space where one party may want to explore the situation without the need to involve the other party yet. A conflict coach helps to prevent the issue from escalating. A conflict coach may also help clarity things for one party in preparation for mediation. The program can also encourage an atmosphere of open dialogue and communication by providing a safe space for all parties involved to air their grievances and work towards finding solutions that work best for everyone.

4. Conflict is not restricted to employees. C-Suite or top-level executives are as much negatively impacted by conflict as their staff. A study published by Deloitte that while 91% of C-Suite respondents see collaboration as essential to organizational success, only a handful actually collaborate. In fact, 73% say that they rarely work on projects or strategic initiatives (Deloitte 2018, Global Human Capital Trends). There may be several reasons for this lack of collaboration between teams (silo mentality, logistical limitations, do not see the need to collaborate, fear, etc) but in this particular story shared by my friend, he holds conflict between the top officials as the reason for his termination. As team leaders tend to protect their members, the conflict escalates bringing in more actors and re-opening / opening of more issues.

There are many more arguments to having a workplace mediator. A workplace mediator can help resolve conflicts not only between employees and management but also with other stakeholders such as partners, contractors, suppliers, community stakeholders, etc. This is recommended for large organizations that operate in an environment with multiple stakeholders. In some cases, they call the workplace mediation program other things like ombudsman service or professional conduct office where the scope and service vary based on the unique demands of the organization. Workplace mediation programs must be tailored-fit to the organization. For instance, a special program may be established to handle bullying or harassment in the workplace if these are rampant in the organization. There are experts in the field available to map the conflict situation in the organization and guide you in designing a suitable program.

What should I anticipate when designing a workplace mediation program? 

There are a few potential roadblocks to people seeking out a workplace mediator which include feeling embarrassed or ashamed about bringing up their concerns, fear of repercussions from management, not knowing how the process works, and lack of trust in the impartiality of the mediator. Additionally, some people may feel uneasy discussing sensitive topics with someone outside their organization.

It is important for employers to understand these barriers so they may provide education on the benefits and purpose of using a workplace mediator, as well as ensure that employees are aware of their rights when it comes to resolving conflicts in the workplace.

When people overcome these roadblocks and seek out a workplace mediator, they have the opportunity to work through their conflicts in an open and honest environment. They can:

· express their grievances without fear of judgement or reprisal,

· gain clarity on how best to move forward with any disputes, and

· reach compromise when necessary.

In addition, using a mediator can help develop better communication skills among all parties involved which can then be applied not just to the dispute at hand but also to many other situations. Studies have shown that it can decrease stress levels in the office, improve morale, increase productivity, reduce costs associated with legal disputes over labor issues or workplace discrimination claims, and provide opportunities for professional growth through conflict resolution training. 

How do you start a workplace mediation program?

a. A company can begin to establish a service for workplace mediators by researching local professionals or organizations that provide such services. It is important to research the background and experience of any potential mediator, as well as their fees and availability.

b. Develop formal protocols in place so employees know how they should approach the mediation (and/or conflict coaching) process, including when they should request one and what expectations are regarding confidentiality and outcomes. The company should also make sure to clearly communicate these policies with all employees, managers, and other stakeholders before beginning the mediation process.

c. Companies can make employees feel comfortable talking to a workplace mediator by providing training and education on the mediation process, not just for managers but also for all employees. d. Employers must promote a safe space by doing the following:

  • Ensure that mediators are impartial and have experience in sensitive topics or negotiations,

  • Encourage a culture where it is safe and accepted to express grievances without fear of repercussions or judgement,

  • Provide clear policies regarding confidentiality so employees know their conversations with the mediator will remain private.

Studies have found that the use of workplace mediation services can help to reduce conflict and improve outcomes in disputes. Additionally, it has been shown to increase employee satisfaction, reduce turnover rates, and boost productivity. These findings suggest that investing in a quality workplace mediation service can be beneficial for both employers and employees.

How does the process look like?

An example of a mediator handling conflict between managers could involve both parties discussing the issues in dispute, then outlining and agreeing on a plan for moving forward. The mediator's role would be to ensure that each party has an opportunity to express their perspective openly, encouraged by the mediator to listen carefully to one another's points of view without interruption or personal attacks, and help all sides reach consensus or compromise on potential solutions. The mediator will guide parties throughout the process of coming up with options to resolve the issue. Ultimately, it is up to the parties involved to make decisions that they are comfortable with. Once an agreement has been reached, all involved must commit to following through with whatever was decided upon in order for it to be effective, as well as maintain open lines of communication going forward in order to prevent new conflicts from arising in the future.

I hope this gives you a better understanding of the benefits of having a workplace mediation program or even simply starting to hire an external workplace mediator! Call us for a confidential consultation for any of your concerns.