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Workplace mediation

03 July 2019, at 9:00am

Mediation can be an effective means to prevent tensions developing into grievances

In the high-pressured, time-constrained environment of a busy veterinary practice, simmering tensions between colleagues can easily turn into larger issues. Left unaddressed, workplace conflict can become toxic to both staffing relationships and the wider practice as a whole.

While your practice staff will be trained, encouraged and passionate to provide the highest levels of care to your clients, often inter-staff conflict is left to fester, with damaging results. Staff disputes inevitably result in staff absence and spikes in attrition rates. Or worse, they end in costly litigation.

Grievances and disciplinary matters take up valuable practice management time. Deploying your senior clinicians or practice management team to handle the processes leads to lost revenue and reduced productivity. Alternatively, in smaller practices, finding appropriate senior staff to handle grievance matters can be challenging.

Swift action to address ongoing tensions, with an early intervention strategy, can aid in avoiding protracted grievances or disciplinary proceedings. This is particularly the case where the issues at play are in essence differences in personality or working style.

Commonly, differences in approach to work, particularly in managerial/line report interactions, are inaccurately interpreted as bullying. Had discussions taken place at an earlier stage, such perceptions could have been addressed and the friction “nipped in the bud”.

What is workplace mediation?

Workplace mediation is a process led by the employees as “participants” to set the agenda for their discussions regarding the issues of conflict in their working relationship. This shifts the focus from any decisions being imposed by the employer to empowering the employees to make their own commitments as to how their working relationship will operate in the future.

The appointed mediator will assist in facilitating the discussions and moving the participants from the issues at play to potential resolutions. It is a forward-looking process, with the participants encouraged to devise their own outcomes to work together more effectively moving forwards. The mediator is not there to set an agenda, offer solutions or stipulate an outcome. It is therefore completely participant-led.

Mediation is outside of any grievance or disciplinary process and is confidential. The appointed mediator facilitates conversation between the participants without passing any judgement or reporting back to line managers. The distinction between mediation and a formal process is important as it enables the participants to talk more freely and devise outcomes that they are willing to adhere to, rather than a decision being imposed upon them.

Crucially, the mediator is impartial and is not there to act as an advocate for either participant or to further the employer’s desired path to resolution.

Practices considering mediation may choose to appoint an internal mediator or an external consultant, trained and with experience in workplace mediation. The benefit of using an external mediator is that they can easily demonstrate they are independent and impartial. While paid for their services by the practice, they have no previous relationship to either participant and are therefore more likely to be trusted as a neutral third party.

What are the outcomes?

It is commonplace for participants to develop some form of agreed outcomes for the future management of their working relationships. On occasion, however, mediation may act as a catalyst for change. A participant may not feel able to complete the mediation process if they feel that the gulf between themselves and their co-worker is too wide, thus in their opinion rendering the relationship unsalvageable.

A participant may choose to resign if they cannot foresee a settled future working relationship or decide to proceed with a grievance where mediation has been offered as an early intervention, or if they feel the other participant is not abiding by the agreed outcomes. In either eventuality, practices should not see mediation as unsuccessful, but rather as having brought issues to a peak meaning that determinative action can be taken to address the matters in question.

Importantly, mediation as a participant-led process is not an ongoing vehicle for dispute resolution. Post-mediation, the mediator will not monitor participants’ adherence to their agreed outcomes by way of “policing” any formal agreements reached. As with the process as a whole, the participants are empowered to decide the next course of action.