How do you handle time consuming, destructive and costly disputes? An in-house mediation team could be the answer

Conflict is a normal part of organisational life. However, it can be destructive and have a negative impact on the individuals concerned, their wider teams and ultimately patient care.

For the past four years Northumbria Healthcare Foundation Trust has been running an internal workplace mediation service for staff.

The scheme was set up for a number of reasons:

  • a significant number of referrals into the staff counselling service related to relationship problems at work;
  • the annual staff survey identified that bullying and harassment was a problem for some staff;
  • recognition that formal processes caused high levels of stress, were costly and time consuming, often leaving both parties even further apart;
  • the stress management standards set out by the Health and Safety Executive include relationships at work and that organisations should have systems in place for helping to resolve conflict, bullying and harassment problems.

The chief executive was keen to look at alternative ways of resolving conflict in teams and funding was secured to train group volunteer staff. A cross section of staff applied to become volunteer workplace mediators and 12 were selected.

The group consisted of consultants, managers, nurses, HR staff and trade union representatives. Mediation company TCM Group was commissioned to provide a six day accredited training course.

Since the original cohort a further seven staff have been trained in mediation skills to allow for succession planning and to expand the service.

A new dignity at work policy was launched to clarify what mediation involves and how it fits into the dispute resolution process. A series of roadshows were rolled out and articles describing the new service went into the trust magazine and leaflets were attached to staff payslips. A new internal mediation website was developed and this continues to be a central source of information, including referral forms and guides for staff.

In a situation where two staff members are experiencing some conflict which has failed to be resolved by a manager facilitating a meeting, HR will advise the manager on whether mediation is an appropriate and viable option. The mediation referral is completed by the parties’ manager with the agreement of both parties.

Typical referrals

About 50 per cent of referrals to the mediation service relate to perceptions of bullying at work and involve a manager and subordinate.

More often than not the mediation highlights differences in perception whereby a manager feels they are only doing their job but the member of staff feels singled out. Often there is a written agreement at the end of the process.

Typical examples of some themes that have arisen in mediation referrals:

  • someone feels they are treated unfairly or differently to others;
  • a person feels ignored or undermined;
  • feeling that they are being overly monitored;
  • feeling that someone spoke to them aggressively;
  • difficult personal relationship whereby one person is accused of being confrontational and the other defensive;
  • one person perceived as loud, vocal and controlling;
  • one person feels they were pointing out errors, the other that they were being rude and singling them out.

Team mediation

Some of the cases that have been referred highlighted bigger issues within the team as a whole such as communication problems, a blame culture, leadership issues and role confusion. Some of the mediators have received further training in team mediation.

There is a very high agreement rate from completed mediations of almost 100 per cent and there are direct cost savings to the trust.

Participants have reported had they not been offered mediation, they would have considered raising a formal grievance, gone off sick or left their department.