Can you mediate a workplace complaint? And, is mediation appropriate for all workplace investigations/complaints? 

Yes and no. 

Human Resource Managers are often faced with conduct complaints, which can range from workplace grievances, disagreements and personality clashes to criminal and corrupt conduct, or misconduct, bullying, fraud and sexual harassment. To deal with them all the same way would not only be time consuming and culturally problematic… but expensive. 

Something that is often not considered – or if considered, it’s too late – is mediation, a powerful alternative dispute resolution (ADR) tool. It’s gained prominence for its effectiveness in resolving workplace disputes and complaints while fostering collaboration and preserving relationships. 

But what exactly is mediation? 

Mediation is a structured and facilitated process wherein a neutral third party (who should be trained, otherwise it can backfire), assists disputing parties in reaching a mutually satisfactory resolution. The primary goals and objectives of mediation encompass more than just settling disputes; they strive to create an environment of understanding, collaboration, and growth.

How does it help?

  • Conflict resolution: The foremost objective of mediation is to resolve conflicts swiftly and amicably. Unlike traditional litigation or arbitration, mediation focuses on finding common ground rather than assigning blame. This approach fosters a sense of ownership among the parties involved and allows for creative solutions that address the root causes of the dispute.
  • Preservation of relationships: In a workplace, maintaining healthy relationships is paramount to productivity and employee satisfaction. Mediation prioritises preserving these relationships by encouraging open dialogue and empathy. By addressing underlying issues and finding solutions together, parties often emerge with a renewed understanding of each other’s perspectives.
  • Empowerment: Mediation empowers participants to actively engage in problem-solving. It provides a platform for individuals to voice their concerns and needs, ensuring that the outcome is tailored to their specific circumstances. This empowerment contributes to a sense of control and satisfaction, as opposed to having decisions imposed upon them by a third party.
  • Cost and time efficiency: Traditional investigations can be both time-consuming and costly. Mediation, on the other hand, is typically swifter and more cost-effective. The process is streamlined, as parties work collaboratively to find solutions.
  • Confidentiality: Mediation offers a confidential environment where parties can freely express their concerns without fear of public exposure. This confidentiality promotes candid discussions and the exploration of solutions that might not be possible in a more formal setting.

In essence, involving a mediator to deal with a complaint can be advantageous and incredibly cost effective. It can be quick and remove the enormous stress a formal investigation can cause. But it does require the cooperation and involvement of the parties to work. 

Moreover, serious matters requiring investigation that may result in dismissal (like fraud, sexual harassment) or other detrimental action (like demotion, fines, transfer) may not be appropriate to mediate. 

Does mediation always work? The short answer is, no. Both parties must make a commitment to resolve the issue and work towards harmony. And the complainant (or reporter) must be comfortable with the process. Mediation should not be used in lieu of a formal process if that’s what’s appropriate. 

There’s also restorative mediation, used at the completion of an investigation/enquiry. More about that in a later article. 

Whilst it’s also easy enough for any good communicator to sit down with two parties and “sort things out,” the proper process of mediation is structured and outcome driven. In Australia, Mediators are trained and accredited in various forms of mediation. So while tempting to get someone good from your organisation to mediate, be aware that they’ll probably lack the formal training and experience to get the best outcomes. 

At the Professional Investigators College of Australasia we offer a HR Investigation Bundle that can assist in resolving workplace disputes and complaints.