Resolving conflicts through mediation at East Sussex council

Mediation is a key part of the Government’s plans for employment law reform. It hopes that by referring all employment disputes to mediation it will reduce the number of tribunals that take place.

However, it needn’t look far to see a successful mediation service already in action. Leatham Green, assistant director of HR at East Sussex County Council, talks to Personnel Today about how mediation has transformed the council’s dispute resolution process.

While the number of disputes at East Sussex County Council was always small compared with the size of its workforce, the operational and emotional impact of dealing with them was significant.

“We spend months, if not years, in some cases looking into grievances and dignity at work complaints, and at the end of it nobody is happy. So it was about whether or not there was a better way of living,” says Green.

A formal dispute took an average of 32 days for an HR adviser to deal with, with a similar amount of time invested by line managers, legal advisers and trade union representatives. These disputes also had a notable effect on the council’s reputation, levels of sickness absence and staff turnover.

Mediation service launched

In 2008, the council launched an internal mediation service with the aim of settling such disputes in a way that left those involved feeling happier, and cutting down on the time and money that went into the formal dispute process.

“Mediation takes place over a maximum of three days. That includes the prep time, the actual day and the follow up,” Green explains. “It’s kind of a no-brainer really.”

He adds: “The time it took to do it and the investment were more about the cultural change and the behavioural shift rather than the actual doing, which was relatively straightforward.”

Mediation is now offered to any employee involved in a dispute but they are not forced to take it. If they want to take out a formal grievance instead, they can, and many still do. Green estimates that the proportion is around 70/30 in favour of formal procedures.

Despite this, the number of formal workplace disputes has fallen by 47% since the launch of the council’s internal mediation service.

Green warns, however, that due to the culture change that has to take place, mediation is not a quick fix. “It’s a slow burner rather than a revolution,” he says.

Getting the message across

A core challenge that the HR team faced was getting the message across that mediation could be as robust as formal dispute procedures.

“We have had issues with some trade union colleagues and managers saying: ‘I’m in a dispute and it’s caused me a lot of angst and grief, I don’t want it resolved in a day’ and that’s because they have so much emotional connection with it that it doesn’t feel like it could be solved that quickly,” Green explains.

However, the council made an effort to make sure trade unions were part of the process. The initiative, which saw the council win Personnel Today’s first ever award for Innovation in Dispute Resolution, sponsored by mediation services provider TCM, was thought up in a “cup of coffee chat” with their trade union lead, Tony Watson from Unison.

“Tony had said, because he comes from a social working background where mediation is used a lot in family courts, that there is this way of doing things which could translate easily. It came, as many great things do, from chatting in a non-confrontational environment,” Green says.

“They were involved from that conversation, before we’d pitched the idea at all, so they did feel very strongly connected to it.”

Union colleagues were also involved in delivering mediation at the council, alongside the HR team and legal advisers.

Green explains: “Because we use unions to mediate, there’s no hidden agenda and they’re involved in the network of how we develop the service and improve it. We give them commissions because there are some very highly skilled trade union officials and we can make use of them from an organisational perspective.

“Certainly, from the feedback I get from organisations that haven’t brought in the trade unions and given them that sense of trust, confidence and transparency, it doesn’t work so well and it isn’t as effectively embedded into their operation.”

Role of unions is crucial

He adds that the trade union member is crucial in helping the individual to “take that leap of faith” and use mediation instead of the formal procedures.

The union involvement also helped Green get backing from the council leaders when implementing the mediation service. Due to the political nature of the environment in which he was working, it was a huge issue whether the unions were going to fight the initiative or would get on board.

“The fact they were on board helped us to get cross-party buy-in,” says Green. “I was very fortunate with the leader of the council; he is very open to testing something.”

The council use a number of methods to raise awareness for the mediation service. It sends out email alerts, messages with pay slips and posts stories on its intranet. While confidentiality has to be maintained, the team will link stories to events within the organisation, such as using case studies of those who have returned to work through mediation after being off with work-related stress.

Between 2008 and 2011, 150 cases were successfully resolved through mediation at the council without further intervention being required. The service has reaped an array of rewards for the council on an initial investment of £25,000, which it recouped within one month.

Savings were made because fewer cases were going through the formal dispute process, with the cost to resolve an average mediation case at the council coming in at £2,400, compared with £12,500 for the formal grievance service.

Positive results

Alongside this, the council benefited from productivity savings, the return to work of a number of people on long-term sickness absence and a more positive employer brand.

Green comments: “The feedback that’s come from trade unions as well as focus groups is that staff believe we’ve got a genuine desire to address conflict and that we haven’t set out to upset them as an organisation.”

As a result of the success of the mediation service, the council has supported the introduction of mediation at other public-sector employers, such as Westminster City Council and the South East Probation Service, while Jaguar has used the council as a case study to develop its own policy.

Green has also spoken about the service at a number of events, including the Civil Mediation Council Forum International Conference.

However, he says that the Government has not yet examined the council’s success story as part of its drive to make mediation an integral part of resolving employee disputes.

“I would hope that they would want to make use of what is going on, but nobody from the Government’s network has called me to see what we are doing that they could perhaps use, which I found a little bit disappointing because we’ve been working on this since 2007 in a government environment and got it to work.”

He adds that, in order to convince organisations of the benefits of mediation, the Government will need to share the stories of those who have done it successfully.

However, Green is grateful for the recognition that the council received for its efforts on mediation at the Personnel Today Awards. After six years of being shortlisted for, but not winning, various awards, Green says winning the award for dispute resolution was well worth the wait.

“I wouldn’t underplay the amount of effort that goes into getting that seismic shift in an organisation. So, the fact that peers recognise the value of what we were doing was brilliant for us.

“This was the first time that we’d won a Personnel Today Award after being a finalist for six consecutive years. But there was something there in terms of it was worth the wait. If we were only going to win one, I’m glad it was for mediation, it is a great story and one of the best changes we’ve brought about.”

Comments are closed.