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Mediation: An Alternative Approach to Workplace Conflict

Jun 09, 2021

While most of the calls we get at OIG are for investigations, sometimes clients come to us for help with workplace conflicts that don’t rise to the level of an investigation: they don’t involve misconduct or potential legal or policy violations. But the employees involved may have developed bad feelings toward one another over a period of months or years, and the situation is now threatening the morale of the entire team. Or the organization may have completed an investigation, and the employees have started working together again, but their relationship is still tense and awkward. This clearly calls for an intervention of some kind – but what can be done?

Many of these cases can benefit from mediation between the employees involved in the conflict. As veteran mediator and coach Ken Hawkins discussed in his conversation with Cody Holtz last month, mediation is at its core about providing the parties the opportunity to be heard – first by the mediator and ultimately by the other party. Feeling heard often allows them to let down their defenses enough to hear what the other person has experienced and how that person might genuinely view things differently. That gradual process of developing empathy for the other person is the art of mediation. The process isn’t a magic bullet but it can often result in an unexpected transformation of the participants’ perspectives and relationships.

Most of our mediations follow the same basic format. (Note: This approach is adapted from John Ford’s excellent book Peace at Work: The HR Manager’s Guide to Workplace Mediation, among other sources.) When I am conducting a workplace mediation, I first talk to a manager or HR person to get some background about the conflict. Then I schedule phone calls with each of the employees individually to hear a little bit about their perspectives and what they think the problem is.

We then schedule the mediation session, which is usually about three hours. That can take place somewhere on the work site, in a conference room offsite, or even over video conference. The three hours are usually divided up into about five parts: (1)introductory remarks by the mediator; (2) exploring the issues, with both parties taking turns talking, and the mediator using reflective listening techniques to ensure understanding; (3) brainstorming potential solutions; (4) drafting an agreement; and (5) brief concluding thoughts from all the participants.

It can be helpful to invite a manager who is senior to both employees to attend just for parts (1) and (5) – the very beginning and the very end. The manager’s role is primarily to signal institutional support for the mediation process. After my introductory remarks and ground rules, the manager will say a few words, usually expressing confidence that the parties will engage in good faith to reach a resolution. The manager then leaves the room until we invite them back at the conclusion of the session. At that point we share with them any agreement the employees have reached. The manager can often serve as an ongoing source of support if the employees run into any challenges implementing the agreement afterwards.

Mediation cannot solve all problems between coworkers. Sometimes a relationship between employees is too frayed and is beyond repair. Sometimes one person’s conduct is so serious that it really needs to be the subject of an investigation or discipline before any other steps are taken. Also, if one employee has very little capacity for self-awareness or empathy, mediation may not be successful. Where both people are willing to give it a try, however, it can be surprising how often even the most difficult conflicts can benefit from mediation.

With the help of a skilled, neutral third party, the employees can finally let go of some of their entrenched stories about what is motivating the other person, replacing those with a greater understanding of what it is actually like to be in that person’s shoes. That kernel of improved understanding can lead to increased self-awareness for the individual, fewer miscommunications between the two employees, and ultimately a healthier and more productive workplace for everyone.


Of Counsel, OIG