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Idea Exchange: Why Suffolk set up an in-house mediation service

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In-house mediation is helping resolve differences early and reduce the use of formal grievance procedures, report Sally Marlow and Helen Muddock

 

  • Project: Setting up an in-house mediation service
  • Objectives: To make mediation an accessible and ‘go to’ option for all employees at the early stages of a perceived dispute or grievance
  • Timescale: The first round of training for internal mediators began in 2016, with ongoing professional development being provided and training for new mediators as they join the service
  • Number of staff working on project: A team of 12 mediators
  • Outcomes: Evidence of reduced numbers of cases reaching employment tribunal stage
  • Officer contact details: Helen Murdock

For many local authorities and employers in general, mediation has been a ‘last resort’ option – used to repair relationships between people who have been through formal grievance procedures which have only led to more entrenched positions.

At Suffolk, we have been able to put early resolution of differences at the heart of the staff wellbeing agenda by creating a workplace mediation service. We’ve made mediation more accessible and more ‘ordinary’.

It began in 2016 with a convergence of issues and developments that focused minds. That year’s employee survey helped us think differently about the connection between problems in workplace relationships and both physical and mental health. We needed to embed our ASPIRE (Achieve, Support, Pride, Inspire, Respect, Empower) values into the wellbeing agenda, and make more of the opportunity afforded by having public health as part of our council team.

Investing in a workplace mediation service was an obvious choice. The plan was to establish an offering that allowed mediation to be made available and used as early as possible, before staff and managers could become embroiled in situations.

All staff were given the chance to be trained as mediators – to develop key transferable skills around listening, empathy and facilitation. Those who registered interest were asked to provide a written submission of why they wanted to be involved and invited to a face-to-face meeting to discuss the role in more depth.

Ultimately, 12 members of staff were selected. That allowed us to have enough mediators to meet typical demand. But it also meant mediators did not have to be taken away from their day-to-day responsibilities too often, while still having plenty of opportunity to practise their skills regularly.

There was a high level of interest in the mediation training; the places could have been filled twice over. The training was delivered by a workplace mediation, investigations and conversation skills expert from an external firm with 30 years’ experience of mediation services across the public sector. This meant instant credibility with everyone, a comprehensive basis of skills and processes, and a structure of continuing professional development (CPD).

We introduced bi-monthly meetings for the mediators to discuss experiences and challenges (while respecting confidentiality). Two of our mediators act as co-ordinator for the service, scoping the mediations and determining which mediator/s should take on each case.

An important factor in the success of the service has been support from the managers of our mediators. They have needed to release their colleagues both for training and to deliver sessions, but support has been consistent because people see the direct benefits: how mediation can spare them from personal involvement in complex, time-consuming disputes; the value of early resolution of conflict, avoiding employment tribunals and lost staff; the positive impact on the workplace environment overall 

For the organisation more widely, and at a time when HR resources are more limited, the presence of in-house mediation has served to encourage more personal responsibility for dealing with issues – rather than necessarily looking for a formal organisational response.

Feedback from managers and staff has been very positive. Mediators themselves see the services as invaluable in catching tensions early and defusing situations that could have become far more serious.

We will be looking closely at results from this year’s employee survey to gauge the measurable impact on organisational health and wellbeing. But we also don’t want to fall into the trap of focusing solely on the numbers – the council is happy to make the investment in people’s wellbeing as part of a much broader cultural piece.

Sally Marlow, head of human resources, and Helen Muddock, safety, health and wellbeing advisor and workplace mediator, Suffolk CC

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