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When in Doubt Call in the Professionals: Impartiality In Workplace Mediation And How To Overcome It


Unbiased workplace mediation is vital for resolving disputes and creating a harmonious working environment. However, ensuring neutrality can be challenging for in-house mediators due to their connection to the organisation. This blog post explores:


· Common issues around bias in workplace mediation

· Why an in-house mediator might struggle to remain impartial and neutral.

· What are the alternatives to in-house mediators.


Common Issues in Workplace Mediation


Any HR professional knows that nowadays, workplace mediation can be a very effective tool for resolving conflicts, but like any approach, it can have potential pitfalls or issues. These might include the following:


· Limitations on Issues: Not all workplace issues can be resolved through mediation. Some issues, like systemic discrimination or harassment, may require more formal procedures or legal action.


· Power Imbalances: If there's a significant power imbalance between the parties (for example, between a manager and an employee), this may hinder effective mediation. The party with less power may feel unable to speak freely or may feel pressured to agree to an unsatisfactory resolution.


· Lack of Willingness: Mediation requires the willing participation of all parties. If any party is unwilling to participate or to compromise, the mediation process may not be successful.


· Confidentiality Concerns: While confidentiality is typically a key principle of mediation, it can also be a concern if it prevents serious issues from being addressed at a higher level or in a more formal manner.


· Inadequate Mediator Training: The mediator needs to be trained and experienced in mediation techniques. If the mediator does not have the necessary skills, this could undermine the process.


· Lack of Follow-Up: If there is no follow-up after the mediation, parties might fall back into old patterns of behaviour, causing the issue to re-emerge.


· Superficial Solutions: There's a risk that mediation might address only the symptoms of a problem rather than its root causes. For example, a dispute between two employees might be resolved on the surface, but underlying issues of culture, management style, or communication could remain unaddressed.


· Emotional Stress: Mediation can be a stressful process. If not managed carefully, it can exacerbate tensions or contribute to a negative work environment.


· Misuse or Overuse: There's a risk that employers might use mediation as a "quick fix" for complex issues or as a way to avoid taking necessary disciplinary or managerial action.


Why would an in-house mediator struggle to remain impartial and neutral?


In an ideal world bias shouldn’t come into play when mediating with a workplace mediator but there are a few factors that lead to just that.


An in-house mediator, who is an employee or representative of the same organisation where the mediation takes place, may face challenges in maintaining impartiality and neutrality due to several reasons:


· Organisational Loyalty: An in-house mediator may feel a sense of loyalty towards their employer or the organisation they represent. This loyalty could potentially influence their perspective and decision-making during the mediation process, making it difficult for them to remain completely neutral.


· Power Dynamics: In-house mediators may have an existing relationship or hierarchical position within the organisation. This can create power imbalances or perceptions of bias, particularly if the mediator has a reporting relationship to one of the parties involved. The mediator's position within the organisation may affect their ability to be seen as unbiased by all parties.


· Future Working Relationships: In-house mediators may have ongoing professional relationships with the individuals involved in the mediation. Concerns about potential repercussions or strain on these relationships can make it challenging for the mediator to remain impartial and make difficult decisions that may impact those relationships.


· Knowledge of Organisational Dynamics: In-house mediators may have a deeper understanding of the organisation's culture, politics, and history, which can inadvertently influence their perceptions and judgments. This knowledge may make it challenging for them to approach the mediation process with a truly neutral mindset.


· Perception of Independence: Parties involved in the mediation may question the independence of an in-house mediator due to their affiliation with the organisation. They may view the mediator as being aligned with the organisation's interests, potentially compromising the perception of neutrality.


To mitigate these challenges and enhance impartiality, organisations can consider the following measures:


· Training: Ensure that in-house mediators receive proper training in mediation skills, ethics, and maintaining neutrality. This training can help them navigate the complexities of their role and enhance their ability to remain impartial.


· Dual Role Separation: Organisations can separate the roles of in-house mediator and employee, ensuring that the mediator does not have a direct reporting relationship or other conflicts of interest with the parties involved in the mediation.


· Rotation of Mediators: Implement a rotation system where different mediators from within the organisation are assigned to different cases. This practice helps reduce the perception of bias and allows for diverse perspectives in the mediation process.


· Use of External Resources: If a situation arises that may compromise the neutrality of the in-house mediator, be prepared to bring in an external mediator.


· Confidentiality: Stress the importance of confidentiality to the mediator. Confidentiality is a key component of maintaining trust in the mediation process.


· Continuing Education: Encourage continuous learning and improvement. This could include ongoing training, attending workshops or conferences, or pursuing further certification in mediation.


Overall, while in-house mediators can bring valuable insights and knowledge of the organisation, it's important to address potential biases and take steps to ensure that the mediation process is conducted in a fair and unbiased manner.


So, what is an alternative to using an in-house mediator in the workplace?


Unsurprisingly, an alternative to using an in-house mediator is to engage an external mediator. External mediators are third-party professionals who are not employed by your organisation. They have been trained to facilitate resolution of conflicts and are typically neutral, having no vested interest in the outcome of the dispute.


Here are some advantages of using an external mediator:


· Neutrality: External mediators are completely separate from the organisation's hierarchy and politics. They are not involved in the day-to-day operations of the organisation and have no personal relationships with the parties involved. This can make it easier for them to remain neutral and impartial.


· Expertise: External mediators are often experts in conflict resolution with specialised training and experience. They can bring a wealth of knowledge and skills to the mediation process.


· Confidentiality: Because external mediators are not part of the organisation, they can provide a higher level of confidentiality. This can be particularly important in sensitive situations.


· Credibility: Parties may view an external mediator as more credible and fairer because they have no stake in the outcome. This can increase the parties' trust in the mediation process and their willingness to participate.


As with many decisions, the choice between an in-house and external mediator depends on the specific circumstances and needs of your organisation but in situations where the potential for bias or conflicts of interest is high, organisations should think seriously about engaging external, independent mediators.


If you need the services of a workplace mediator or would like more information on this topic, please contact me at gillian@gbruntoncoaching.net


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