A step-by-step guide to
Disputes in the workplace are common. Many of us experience it or are aware of conflicts between colleagues. Resolving these disputes is not always easy. It takes a lot of time, energy and stress to find a solution. Until then, the conflicts can spread to others, morale and staff sickness can be affected, and productivity can decline.
Mediation is a well-recognised route to solving workplace disputes. The mediator is an independent and neutral person who speaks to the people involved in confidence and helps them find a way forward that works for them.
To illustrate the process we present a case-report, based on a true case, which demonstrates how the process works. Names and some details have been altered.
The people in dispute
Jane and Krzysztof
Jane and Krzysztof were histopathologists in a small country hospital – it was their job to look at biopsies and other human tissues under the microscope and to work out the diagnosis. Jane had worked there for 26 years and was nearing retirement. She had always been very capable and has a huge range of experience.
Krzysztof had been appointed 18 months ago to replace a senior colleague who had left. He is a keen and ambitious doctor but still quite junior.
Krzysztof often asked Jane for help. One day when he asked her for help, she lost her temper with him, and snapped
It’s not my job to hold your hand the whole time, why can’t you learn to do it yourself?
To which Krzysztof replied
Maybe you could be a bit helpful occasionally?
You’re just a typical lazy millennial snowflake, you’re worse than my son!”
and she walked out, slamming the door behind her.
There were several witnesses to this exchange. After this the relationship broke down, and the two refused to be in the same room as each other. Other laboratory staff were aware, most of them supporting Jane, at least in public, because they had known her for longer. Some of the technicians sided with Krzysztof because they didn’t like Jane.
A meeting with the Director of Services
The Director of Services became aware of the bad atmosphere in the department and summoned the two of them to her office. She spoke to them at length and pointed out
- They were required to work together for the good of their patients.
- They should behave like professionals, not children.
- They should behave like team players
- And they should put their personal differences to one side.
Jane walked out before the meeting had finished and told the Director that the meeting had been patronising and a total waste of her time.
She became icy cold at work after that and was curt and abrupt with everyone she came into contact with. The Director of Services thought that Jane’s behaviour was unacceptable and felt a disciplinary was the only way to handle her.
A mediation is arranged.
However the Director of HR felt that before starting a disciplinary it might be appropriate to try mediation. She arranged for two mediators to be involved.
Using two mediators (co-mediation) is common, but not essential, in disputes like this to prevent allegations of bias. The two mediators made it clear from the start that they worked together and that neither of them was necessarily the advocate of either Jane or Krzysztof.
A preliminary phone call
Each of the mediators had a preliminary phone call with one of the parties. During this phone call they explained how mediation works. Jane was initially quite reluctant to be involved. Krzysztof was happy to mediate because he knew that he was in the right, and he explained in great detail to the mediator exactly why he felt that.
The mediation took place a week later at the Trust Admin HQ, five miles away.
The mediation agreement is signed
Jane and Krzysztof both signed a Mediation Agreement – a binding legal document – and emailed it to the mediators before starting. There are several key points in the agreement
- The mediation is confidential between Jane and Krzysztof.
- Anything that is said in private to the mediators remains private
- If the mediation is unsuccessful then nothing that is said during it can be used in any future disciplinary/grievance procedures – ie the mediation is ‘without prejudice’
- The mediators cannot give legal advice to either participant.
You can download a sample mediation agreement here.
The morning session
Hearing the issues
Jane spoke to the mediators first. The mediator explained to her that this was her opportunity to tell their story and find out what she wanted from the process.
She explained that Krzysztof was not very good at his job, that it was much quicker for her to do things herself and that she would rather do that than waste her time teaching him. There were some tasks that were too difficult to teach him. It was also clear that she resented a bright young thing coming into the department.
She mentioned that she had been under a lot of personal stress.
Krzysztof then had a private session with the mediators. He told them that he recognised he was very junior but he had been unable to get a job anywhere else. He was keen to learn more. He hated asking Jane for help but there was nobody else for him to turn to.
Probing and exploring
After the initial two private sessions, which each took 45 minutes, the mediators had two more brief private sessions with each of the two parties where they probed and explored some of the issues that had come up. They asked about how each of them thought a formal grievance procedure would end. Neither of them were particularly optimistic about the possible outcomes. They looked at what upset Jane and Krzysztof most about the other person. And they explored what each of them felt would be a good outcome given the circumstances.
After lunch the mediators met with Jane and Krzysztof together. In this afternoon session, which lasted most of the afternoon
- Jane apologised to Krzysztof for being so unhelpful
- They looked together at which tasks each of them could do.
- They agreed that certain tasks would be carried out only by Jane.
- They agreed Krzysztof could spend some time at the City hospital to further his training.
Jane also explained that she intended to retire at the end of the year. This was kept secret from everyone else. Krzysztof understood the effects that this would have on him.
Writing a settlement agreement
The two parties wrote a detailed agreement between the two of them covering these points. They both signed it. The mediators did not keep a copy.
The Mediators informed the Director of HR and the Director of Services that an agreement had been reached. They did not go into detail about what the agreement was. The Directors were delighted with the outcome.
The final outcome
This dispute was solved in one day.
The mediation bill came to £1000.
Four months later Jane announced that she would retire at the end of the year.
What did they really want?
Jane and Krzysztof were at very different stages in their careers, and had very different views of the future. Jane had been looking for a smooth exit to retirement, and perhaps had unrealistic expections of how Krzysztof would take over from her. The mediation had allowed them to face up to the reality of the situation, and to plan together for the future of their service.
Jane was also planning to retire but had wanted to keep that a secret. The nature of the mediation meant that she was able to keep that information confidential from HR and her other colleagues. It wasn’t clear why she wanted to keep her retirement a secret – and the mediator was not her therapist!
In this case, mediation enabled the two doctors to have an honest and positive discussion, without having to tell HR about Jane’s retirement or Krzysztof’s educational needs. They managed to put the interests of their patients and the hospital first by acting collectively.