Small Business Tips

How to Mediate Conflict Between Employees

Nigel Graber
Two colleagues having disagreement and conflict|young smiling friends in formalwear take selfie picture on camera|Group of businesspeople talking about future project and smiling

Sometimes, it can seem like your workplace is just one stolen teabag away from a full-blown meltdown. Disputes between employees, or employees and management, are inevitable. And they can be not only disruptive but also financially costly. Ignoring them, however, can cost you even more.Here's our quick guide to mediation and arbitration in the workplace.

Mediation vs arbitration: What's the difference?

Let's begin with a few definitions. When a third-party intervenes to try to solve a workplace dispute, three methods can come into play: mediation, conciliation and arbitration.

Mediation

Mediation is when an impartial third-party tries to help an employee and their employer, or two or more employees reach an agreement that makes them happy. It's usually used after informal discussions haven't worked out.Mediation is voluntary. It shouldn't be used to try to solve problems that have to be formally investigated, such as discrimination or harassment.If you decide you need external professional help, you can find a mediation service here.

Conciliation

Conciliation is similar to mediation. But where the mediator's job is to help the parties find a solution, the conciliator has a more active role. In the UK, conciliation is typically used when someone has already made a claim at an employment tribunal. Acas has a useful guide.

Arbitration

Arbitration involves a third-party making a binding decision on a case after weighing up all the issues.The employer and employee have to agree to an arbitrator's decision being final and legally binding. In instances where no agreement has been reached, the case can go to an employment tribunal.For the purposes of this article, we'll focus on mediating conflict between employees and how to survive it.

How to mediate disputes between employees

Firstly, let's be clear about the sort of workplace issues we're talking about. They could be:

  • Between employees and within teams
  • Allegations of harassment, bullying and discrimination
  • About absence
  • Between managers
  • About unfair dismissal and redundancy
  • About change
  • Around failing to make reasonable adjustments
  • About equal pay or other legal matters

If you're a manager and it's part of your job to sort out a workplace conflict, you're going to need a strategy to defuse this type of situation – fast. If matters escalate, things can start to get not only disruptive but also expensive.

Plan, schedule and set up

Find out who's involved in the conflict, then get them in a room together. Make it a pleasant environment, so everyone has the best chance of achieving a resolution.

Explain the process

Set out the ground rules and explain what your role will be. Your employees might not have come across a neutral facilitator before.

Make your position clear

Let the parties know that you won't pick sides. It's pretty much impossible for you as someone outside the conflict to know what happened. You should simply focus on helping resolve the conflict in an adult manner.

Set the scene

Allow each party to briefly summarise their viewpoint. Don't allow interruptions. The aim is for everyone to understand each other's positions. If things get out of hand, be ready to step in.

Stagger the presentations

When you stagger the presentations, the balance of power moves smartly from one side to the other. Traditionally, mediation theory has held that each side should make their statements at the same time. But this tends to create a hostile atmosphere.

Don't make it personal

You should never make matters personal. That means depersonalising your comments and dealing only with the issue at hand. Don't say something like, "That's just typical of you, John." Instead, consider an alternative, such as, "We'll have to look more closely at why this keeps occurring."Keeping these inflammatory remarks out of the conversation is far easier in writing, where we have editing tools. In a live discussion, it can be much more difficult: you'll need to stay alert and on top of your game to achieve the level of depersonalisation that you need.

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Ask them what success looks like

Ask each employee what success looks like to them. What would they like to see their colleague do to resolve the issues?For example: "Kevin is good at his job, but he tends to do everything at the last minute. I rely on him to hand over projects in good time. It's no good for me to receive work an hour before the deadline. If I miss it, it makes me look bad. I need him to hand over his work much sooner."

You might need to take some responsibility for achieving a resolution here. For instance, you might have to probe deeply to find out what's causing Kevin to delay handing over his projects.

Ask each employee to pinpoint what they'd like to see the other doing more or less of.

Get agreement

Everyone involved should promise to make the changes that will resolve the problem. They should acknowledge that the other employee has made changes and commit to treating each other with courtesy.

Reasonable disagreements are the creative lifeblood of workplace projects. But personality conflicts are never acceptable.

Ask them what success looks like

Some conflicts simply can't be solved. There are cases where some people were just never meant to be in the same room together.Sometimes, both employees will leave the table having settled nothing. In this situation, you're only going to have to find ways to keep them apart and ensure their working itineraries don't meet.

Review progress

The last stage in workplace mediation should be to give reassurance that you believe both employees can resolve their differences and continue to contribute positively towards the organisation. Agree on a date to meet again and review progress.

Signs that mediation has worked

After your attempts to resolve the workplace conflict, you'll want to look for signs that things are getting better. You'll know your efforts haven't been in vain if the parties:

  • Seem relaxed in each other's company
  • Work together on projects
  • Choose less-inflammatory words
  • Cut down on gossip
  • Have a more friendly tone of voice and better body language
  • Keep to what they agreed
  • Cope well with new issues
Group of businesspeople talking about future project and smiling

How to stop conflict reoccurring

Prevention is always better than cure. So it pays to nip problems in the bud. That means looking for the root causes.Issues at work often stem from:

Unclear roles and responsibilities

There's no room for vagueness with employees and the tasks you expect them to achieve. Poor guidance can result in them second-guessing your expectations. It can also lead to crossover with other employees' duties, which can cause tension. Make sure all directions answer the key questions: who, what, when, where and why.

Deeper issues

Surface issues are rarely the true cause of workplace problems. Often, the real problem lies with the core values of one of the parties. Talk to the employee about what matters to him or her in life and then design a long-term solution that will keep everyone happy.

Differing interpretations

Colleagues often see the same things differently. You should try to understand that not everyone sees the world through the same filter. Try to crack each individual code and see matters from their perspective. A little investigation will provide new insights into solving problems.

Don't attempt to mediate when emotions are running high. That's when common sense goes out the window. Isolate the parties, let them cool down and then talk to them to find out what was behind the heightened feelings.

Cliques

Cliques in the office are as inevitable as water-cooler gossip. Whatever the reason for employees ganging together with others – perhaps a sense of security or identity – the arrangement will have both good and bad implications.

Consider mixing people up using team-building activities or putting individuals together from different groups to work on projects. A bit of cross-functional teamwork can help discourage behaviour that alienates others.

Vague instructions

Communication is key. There's no room for miscommunication in business. Avoid using vague language such as ‘Whenever you can get around to it' or ‘Just do what you think is best' can mean you're leaving it up to the employee to interpret matters. That can lead to disaster.

If all else fails

There's no denying it: some disputes can escalate. When they do, they become expensive and time-consuming. That's when you might need to call in outside help. Acas Dispute Resolution is an independent and confidential way of getting two parties to reach an agreement and forge better relationships.Acas can help employees or groups of employees to talk and help companies deal with issues that might lead to disputes. The organisation also offers some free tools and templates on its website that assist in settling conflicts within the workplace.Mediation: a Guide for Trade Union Representatives is a joint Acas and TUC guide on mediation aimed at union reps, and Mediation: an Approach to Resolving Workplace Issues is a joint Acas and CIPD guide on mediation.Working life is rarely as smooth as the brochures suggest. But when things go off-track, following these proven procedures, staying impartial and using the right language and tone of voice might turn you into a modern-day Henry Kissinger.