Mediation is a voluntary process; sometimes, though, “voluntary” can get a little murky if employers are “strongly recommending” mediation or, in fact, requiring it before other steps can be taken. Ontario, after all, does have “mandatory mediation.” So the question of who decides whether or not a specific issue goes to mediation is not a one-word answer. It could be up to any number of people: to the parties themselves, to the HR staff or to the liaison officer. It could be dependent on policies, or it may not even be mentioned as an option under company policy. The important thing is that all parties recognize that mediation is an option. More important than “who” decides is “when” it happens or gets suggested.
When an employer, an HR professional, or anyone within an organization suggests mediation for any type of workplace conflict, there is a fine line they must tread. Usually, it is better to suggest mediation early so the conflict does not spiral out of control or have a chance to metastasize. But, there is a flip side to that coin. If it is suggested too early, it might be perceived as an attempt to cover up the problem or people may not be willing to try it because there is not enough at stake for them and they worry that it will mean making some kind of compromise.
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Sometimes, because people do not always understand the purpose of mediation or the possible outcomes suggesting it to potentially hostile parties causes new issues to arise. One issue is that, sometimes, mediation can be seen as the organization trying to sweep a problem under the rug rather than dealing with it. “Oh, you have a conflict – go to mediation so it looks like we’re doing something.” It can feel as though a serious problem is not being treated seriously. As well, people often need to get the venom out, as awful as that sounds. Sometimes, you have to go through a bit of the pain before people are willing to, and want to, look for an alternative resolution. In the mediation business we talk about it as the “ripeness” of the conflict for mediation.
The success of mediation, if participants will agree to it , depends on how it is handled. This is something that more HR people, supervisors, etc., could use a hand in deciding. Often, that’s what I do on the front-end. I can help that person who is managing the conflict figure out how to offer mediation as a real solution, how it can then be implemented, and, of course, when.