Navigating Workplace Disputes: The Role of Mediation in Employee Conflict Resolution

By Jill Schellenberg January 24, 2024

Mediation can be a confusing term.

Many mix up mediation and arbitration. Arbitration refers to trying to help each side come to an agreement, but if they can’t, then deciding for them. Although arbitration can sometimes be an appropriate decision-making tool it often leaves people upset. They now have no incentive to be honest and open about the problem.

When I’ve used mediation in the workplace, it is often because the employer has two or more highly valued employees who are experiencing conflict. The employer doesn’t want to lose any of them but knows the problem needs to be resolved. The type of mediation I’ve used is based on the approach found in Matthew 18 – you take the dispute to a neutral person. This mediation approach is reliant on having a neutral person (usually from outside the organization) facilitating communication in a safe environment.

Getting each party to agree that they want to settle the dispute is vital. Helping them communicate, without interruption, summarizing thoughts, and coming up with viable solutions is the role of the mediator. Once ideas are acceptable to both parties they need to be written down and signed by everyone.

Then you enter the most difficult phase. My former colleague Ron Claassen said, “Trust grows when agreements are made and kept”.

No matter what people agree to there has to be an accountability structure built in. It’s recommended to set a follow-up meeting when signing the original agreement. Depending on the problem, this follow-up is usually three to six months in the future. If it appears that the agreement is quickly falling apart, then an immediate follow-up is necessary.

The follow-up meeting is the most important part of the process. Who cares that you have a great agreement if it isn’t being kept? Sometimes, the reason it isn’t being kept is because it isn’t the best agreement. We tend to simplify our problems and think that one or two changes are going to resolve the issue. This may not be the case. At the follow-up, it may be time to add or subtract things from the original agreement that aren’t working for both parties. This isn’t a failure. It is difficult to craft an agreement that is perfect on the first iteration. The follow-up conversation can be a marvelous roadmap to rewrite the agreement.

“Trust grows when agreements are made and kept”

If the agreement is being kept, then it is necessary to celebrate. People need to have the affirmation that they’ve succeeded. Even small successful agreements should be celebrated. People often think these conflicts are hopeless, but every time you make and keep an agreement, trust is built. It makes it easier to make and keep the next agreement and come to the next resolution.

Mediation can be an amazingly successful process. It gives employees the autonomy to come to their own solutions without feeling pressured by management’s perceptions or expectations.