Promoting a Principled Approach to Mediation in the Public Sector – Opportunities

The Government recently published its response to the consultation on Resolving Workplace Disputes, placing mediation centre-stage in its strategy of reducing the cost of workplace conflict and improving the culture of employment relations in both the private and public sectors. It outlined plans for a long-term programme to make mediation a more accepted and trusted part of workplace dispute resolution. Included in these plans are two government-funded pilot mediation schemes. One is a regional, cross-sector scheme aimed at SMEs. This scheme will offer mediation training to one employee from each of a regional group of 24 SMEs. These trained mediators will then be available to offer mediation to any other members of that group. The scheme is to be trialled in Cambridge and Manchester later this year. The other scheme, to be conducted within one industry sector, will enable large businesses to share their mediation expertise with smaller organisations in their supply chains.

One of the most important outcomes of the Government response will be its effect in raising awareness of mediation, and legitimising it as an accepted, mainstream form of conflict management. One of the greatest barriers to the use of mediation until now has been the reluctance both of organisations and individual employees to try out this relatively little known approach, instead favouring the more established grievance, disciplinary and employment tribunal procedures. With HM Government’s official seal of approval, this can be expected to change. Already, the demand for mediation training and services has been seen to rise, notably among NHS Trusts and Local Councils.

This is cause for celebration amongst those who believe in mediation as a humane, time- and cost-effective alternative to more formal processes, which often disempower the parties to conflict by imposing solutions from above. However, organisations must take great care not to promote the use of mediation at the cost of compromising the fundamental mediation principles, in particular voluntarism and self-determination.

Voluntarism is the principle that mediation should only take place if all parties to the conflict choose willingly to engage. This principle lays the foundations for a candid and committed conversation to take place. Therefore, promoting mediation must not translate into pressure on individuals to participate in mediation against their will. If voluntarism is compromised, mediation can turn into a tick-boxing exercise which may paper over the cracks of conflict, but fail to produce genuine understanding or long-lasting resolution.

Self-determination is the principle that the parties to the conflict have control over what they discuss during the mediation and what action they will take once the mediation is over.  Again, it is vital that in the desire to avoid employment tribunals, employers do not try to influence either the parties or the mediators, but continue to respect the parties’ right to make their own decisions and choose their own outcomes.

The Government’s response may prove to be a turning point in the history of UK workplace relations. The hope is that more people suffering from workplace conflict will, through mediation, be empowered to have the difficult conversations that address the root cause of their dispute, and jointly find constructive, realistic ways forward. For this to happen, government, employers and the mediation industry must remain extremely vigilant in upholding the fundamental principles of mediation. As long as these principles are intact, the stage is set for mediation to flourish as a cost-effective, humane tool for managing workplace conflict, within the public sector and beyond.

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