Nine steps to make the most of mediation at work

Mediation is popular with a wide range of HR professionals as it reduces stress, resolves conflict and restores working relationships, all in substantially less time than it takes to conduct a formal grievance.

A report about the “participant experience”, published in 2013 by Acas, provides a reality check, however – reminding us that many users of mediation are sceptical, find mediation difficult and are uncertain about its long-term value. This is good prompt for HR to gain valuable feedback about how to avoid the pitfalls and make the most of mediation at work.

A small sample of 25 users were interviewed in the research. The key findings were as follows:

  • Mediation is initiated mostly by senior managers or HR practitioners rather than the parties themselves. It tends to be used as a last resort, although earlier intervention was more likely in organisations with in-house mediation capacity.
  • Participants often felt isolated and unsupported. A senior manager in the public sector said: “There’s confidentiality, blanket confidentiality, you aren’t supposed to even tell anyone that it’s happening… So you’re reliant on your friends and family for emotional support.”
  • Where external mediators were contracted, there were examples of parties being left with the responsibility for making practical arrangements for the mediation.
  • Mediation was not seen as voluntary. There was a clear sense that parties (particularly managers) felt compelled to attend, believing that a refusal would be viewed negatively by colleagues and senior managers.  
  • Respondents were generally very positive about the role played by mediators. They were seen to be impartial and most developed a rapport and empathy with the parties. Most people felt that they had benefitted from taking part in mediation, but they also found the process extremely challenging. This could be made more difficult by poor or insensitive administration that resulted in parties meeting each other prior to the mediation, being left in the mediation room together or expected to have lunch together.
  • In the majority of cases, mediations resulted in agreement. However, this often did not lead to any fundamental change in behaviour and/or attitude, and in about half of cases within the sample change was not ultimately sustained. Part of the reason for this was that some parties who had been reluctant to undergo mediation in the first place were prepared to agree to a course of action with little or no intention of complying with it. This was compounded by a lack of follow-up, particularly in cases that were externally mediated.
  • Some managers within the sample questioned, in particular, the sustainability of settlements in cases that involved performance issues. It was argued that while mediation could resolve relational matters between employer and employee, problems with capability would inevitably resurface at a later point. From an employee perspective, there was a danger that the use of mediation could obscure unfair treatment and shift responsibility for this away from the organisation.
  • In some cases, however, even where there was no significant change in attitude and behaviour, mediation paved the way for a degree of pragmatism allowing the parties to continue to work together in some form. Moreover, for employees who had complained of unfair treatment, the opportunity to air their views could be cathartic and empowering, even if mediation did not deliver the justice that they sought. Importantly, almost all respondents would either recommend mediation to others or consider taking part again in the right circumstances.
  • There was also evidence that mediation could develop conflict-handling skills among participants. For some managers against whom complaints had been made, the process caused them to reflect on and adjust the way they communicated with staff and approached conflict. Furthermore, for a number of employees who had complained of unfair treatment, mediation allowed them to “move on” and deal with conflict in a more proactive and constructive way.

Getting more out of mediation

The main tips emerging for HR in terms of addressing these user views and getting more out of mediation are:

  • Mediation needs some infrastructure and support for the parties involved. HR is well placed to provide appropriate support with preparation, the logistics and helping the parties participate fully in the process. A “mediation buddy” can give impartial, confidential listening support to enable both parties to realistically utilise mediation.
  • Blanket confidentiality is unhelpful and more nuanced approaches are needed – for example, the mediator helping the parties to word a joint statement for people that need to know what the outcomes and action plans are.
  • Earlier use of mediation needs to be encouraged. This is a long process achieved by steady drip-drip awareness raising, securing ring-fenced resolution budgets and creating policies that encourage mediation as a first resort when appropriate.
  • Potential users and referral parties need to know which issues are more or less suitable for mediation, and do not use mediation to avoid taking a strong approach to unfairness, conduct or capability. Conflict diagnosis should be a core competency for all HR staff.
  • There is pressure to attend mediation and agree, which creates a lack of commitment and could explain why some outcomes are not sustained. It is okay to strongly request that the parties meet each mediator, but reinforce that they are not compelled to proceed to a joint resolution meeting. The maximum benefit is gained if parties attend and work on their issues willingly.
  • Mediation needs to be normalised, and it should avoid being presented as some sort of externally provided, “alternative” service. Create positive narratives around successes without breaching confidentiality.
  • Make sure that the practice of follow-up is conducted more thoroughly, including challenging non-compliance of what has been agreed. Mediators should be encouraged to improve their practice on reality-checking agreements, building in fall-backs and what-ifs should agreements break down.
  • If you have or are planning an in-house mediation team, recruit from as wide a range of rank, role and general diversity as possible. The research suggests that, for example, some senior parties are reluctant to be mediated by a junior colleague.
  • Finally, ensure that you secure the services of an in-house or external mediator trained in line with national standards – new overarching standards are due to be announced in 2014.

Mediation works best when it is used as part of an overall people management strategy rather than an ad hoc intervention to address single employee relations events.


Saundry R. Workplace mediation: The participant experience. Plymouth University.

Bennett T, Wibberley G. Acas research paper, Ref. 02/13. Institute for Research into Organisations, Work and Employment (iROWE), University of Central Lancashire.

XpertHR resources

Good practice manual: Mediation

John Crawley

About John Crawley

John Crawley is director of People Resolutions, mediation, conflict resolution and investigation experts. He pioneered the introduction of workplace mediation in the UK and is a widely published author on the subject. Email [email protected], call 01234 756 037 or visit the website at
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