Making the case for mediation

Caroline Sheridan , Executive Coach and Mediator

Caroline Sheridan is an Executive Coach and Mediator at Sheridan Worldwide. She is also a Fellow of the Civil Mediation Council.

Acas research, Estimating the costs of workplace conflict, shows that the cost of workplace conflict in the UK may reach nearly £30 billion per year. There is no escaping that that is a colossal sum to lose down the back of the national sofa, especially where a fair chunk of it is avoidable.

I was honoured to chair a panel session at Acas's recent Business Case for Mediation conference. Representatives from academia and industry agreed that mediation can transform how employees and employers see disputes at work, turning the process into a means to an end, a resolution, rather than its being the end in itself.

Business context

There is no imminent prospect of work disputes becoming fewer in number. Quite aside from world events on which employees may take different sides and the increasing use of social media as amplifier of views which might politely be described as "challenging", we also have changes in employment law both new (allowing for flexible working requests from the first day of employment) and proposed (doing the same for unfair dismissal rights). Both seem likely to maximise the potential for an early falling-out, so time training managers on handling conflict is not going to be wasted.

Economist and journalist Will Hutton provided evidence that at least some of the UK's slide down the international productivity and wellbeing tables is due to weakening levels of employee engagement.

I will not be alone in shaking my head over recent headlines around the number of people in the UK who are off work with mental health issues or who have dropped out of the workforce altogether for that reason. Though far from the only cause, it seems obvious that less clashing of heads with one's managers or colleagues could go a long way to allow people to return to productive work. Formal grievance procedures will in time produce a legal resolution, but mediation is much more likely to lead to a real one.

Maybe we have spent enough on leadership development for the time being and should now focus instead on improving low-level conflict management skills among those most directly "in the trenches" with the employees raising complaints and grievances.

Maybe that would lead more employees to feel heard and to have the confidence to raise issues important to them without fearing that the business would immediately batten down the hatches rather than engage constructively. If employee engagement is a proxy for productivity, then the business case for mediation in the UK has never been stronger.

So why aren't we doing more of it?

Of course mediation is not a cure-all. Some level of dispute at work is inevitable. There are examples to be made, precedents to be set, instructions to be complied with. But even once you take those few cases out of that £30 billion, the business case remains the same for all the reasons we have known from the start – speed, cost, flexibility, discretion, and so on.

All my panel members agreed that the principal obstacles to wider use of mediation in the UK workplace are history and fear.

History, because most current managers and staff representatives have grown up with a relatively adversarial approach to such disputes, driven in part by the process they think is required by the Acas Code, even though in fact it is not.

And fear because, bluntly, no-one ever lost their job for following a formal process set out in internal policies, even though the outcome was perhaps the destruction of what was left of the necessary relationships between employee and management. If that fear is to be addressed, then more senior managers will also need to actively support trying mediation first, almost as a default, and save moving directly to formal processes for those few cases where that is appropriate.

The case for greater awareness

So maybe a better title for the Acas event would strictly have been 'The Business Case for Mediation Awareness'.

With many others, I have been extolling the virtues of mediation at work for many years, and I am not aware of a single instance of an organisation going from that resolution culture back to primary reliance on formal grievance processes.

Find out more about mediation at work