Managing people can be one of the most challenging aspects of life in the workplace.

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And all too often when things go wrong, all paths seem to lead to an employment tribunal at Norwich’s Elliott House.

But the coalition government wants to change the current approach, which is seen both as too combative and also too time consuming and costly.

In a recent consultation ministers set out a vision for a new “employment dispute resolution system” which aims to switch the focus on to dealing with problems into the workplace before they reach the tribunal stage.

The changes are based on feedback from employers, who have told the government that the system is not working as intended and successful reform could in fact, encourage them to take on more staff.

They also fear the current system discriminates against smaller firms who do not have the kind of HR specialists employed by larger businesses.

And ministers believe that it could be beneficial for staff by removing some of the stress linked to the current grievance procedures.

Some of the plans have raised fears that the government is simply trying to dismantle the existing protections for staff which will make it easier to hire and fire, while making it harder for workers to progress a claim by introducing charges.

But mostly there has been broad support for the measures which include proposals for “compromise agreements” and “protected conversations” to promote solutions in the workplace.

Yet with the changes set to come, firms need to be ready to find ways to respond to the greater emphasis on workplace mediation.

Norwich based law firm Leathes Prior is already anticipating the demand for workplace mediation and is playing a leading role in the setting-up of tailored three-day courses for HR professionals and senior executives to gain OCN Eastern Region accredited certificates in internal workplace mediation.

The courses will be run by Martin Plowman, from mediation 1st, and employment lawyer Paula Lawn.

Mr Plowman, who is ranked the country’s number one mediator in the independent National Mediator Database League, said mediation encouraged a different approach in the workplace, but critically it also saved money.

“The average cost of dealing with each dispute is £18,000, whereas the average cost of mediating a case is £2,400,” Mr Plowman added.

“I was involved with a company setting up a workplace mediation scheme which recouped their initial investment in one month.

“They have had a total increase of 11,200 productive days over three years, which they attribute to the mediation and put a value on of £1.3m.

“The question to any employer would be ‘wouldn’t you like to have a workplace where you are not spending as much on stress and not losing as much productivity or funding as many claims and where there is a way of having difficult conversations, which at the moment cannot be had without being disruptive?

“Why wouldn’t you want that? And the answer most employers give is that they would. Having an internal mediator trained up is the right way to do it.”

“Last year, I mediated 132 cases and settled 116. The saving in legal fees is £8m – that’s one mediator who has saved the British economy £8m. If you roll that out that seems to be fairly good for the British economy.

“With a grievance, you only have two outcomes, it is either upheld or rejected and that means there is a winner or a loser. It could be an issue around long term sickness, or problems between a manager and an employee or between two colleagues. But it’s about tackling a blockage that’s stopping a company getting a result.

“What we are advising people to do is to take ownership of the problem.”

So how does workplace mediation work in practice?

“I will always sit down with the parties first and ask them whether they want to sit in the same room as each other so they can put their case directly – 95pc of the time they will say they don’t want to do that, so I will work individually with the parties,” Mr Plowman said.

“Once I have got both sides’ positions, we then try to find a solution.

“At the end of the day it’s about comparing different solutions, one of which is going for the Mutually Assured Destruction option of litigation. Or we can find something which both sides can live with.

“The mediator’s role isn’t to suggest a solution, it’s mostly about helping people to stop looking backwards and start looking forwards. Typically the process lasts about half a day and sometimes less. But we are coming at it from a commercial angle.”

But he said that firms looking to set up work place mediation needed to ensure that the mediator held a position of independence and was not subject to pressure from bosses to spill the beans about conversations taking place with staff.

“It would normally be an HR person, but it’s important that they have a degree of independence and part of setting up a workplace mediation is that guarantees are given that what’s said in confidence stays confidential.

“That’s part of the training for the workplace mediator that the scheme has to be set up so that there is absolutely no such pressure. If any work-placed mediator is placed under that sort of pressure their company risks a tribunal.

“An internal mediator will understand the culture of the organisation.”

Paula Lawn, who was recently made a partner at Leathes Prior, said while it was essential to have proper protections in place to safeguard against workplace discrimination, harassment and bullying, there was a danger that many more mundane disputes were being caught up in the process.

“Employers feel paralysed, they feel that they can’t make decisions and run their business because they are scared to have these conversations,” she said.

““An employer isn’t a parent feeding you mothers’ milk who gives you a pat on the head.

“The primary relationship between an employer and employee is work,” she added.

“The fundamentals of employment law are changing dramatically. From next year, the government is introducing huge reforms, which is going to make it a lot harder to access employment tribunals.

“As lawyers we have got to be meeting that ever changing nature in the work place. There will always be work placed conflict, but at the moment it’s locked in once it becomes a grievance process. This is a way of getting in beforehand before disaster strikes.

“I think people are scared to have difficult conversations. Not all conflicts are suitable for work place mediation, but we want to help people avoid some of these issues.

“In the workplace sometimes the point when you need a mediator is ‘now’ when two employees are shouting and screaming at each other or somebody is threatening to walk out and go to a tribunal It’s like a marriage, if you want the relationship to continue, you don’t really want to be assigning labels such as winning or losing.

“To some extent the parties have to take responsibility for their part in the conflict arising – there is nothing soft about it.

“It involves a degree of intelligence and you do have to take part in the solution.”

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