When Marjorie Munroe usually gets the call from a frustrated boss or an irritated human resources manager, it’s usually about six months later than she would have liked.
“By the time I get into the workplace, things have gotten pretty out of hand, so they call me when it has escalated,” says Munroe, a chartered mediator, referring to a conflict between employees or teams.
She sees all kinds of conflict situations with varying levels of tension, anger and hostility.
As the co-director of Workplace Fairness Alberta, she’s trying to get the word out that calling in a mediator doesn’t mean the manager or supervisor has failed at his or her job. Rather, it’s an effective way to avoid nasty disputes between coworkers from escalating and potentially leading to one party leaving the organization.
“I think there is absolutely a myth (about mediation),” she says. Mediators are simply independent, third-party facilitators who can often have more success in resolving conflicts than direct managers because they come at the situation with fresh eyes.
“We try to remain neutral in all regards,” says Michelle Phaneuf, a chartered mediator in Calgary with REA Agreements and co-founder of Workplace Fairness Alberta.
“We’re not there to fix anything,” Phaneuf says. “We’re there to support these two people in providing a better work environment for them.”
Both Phaneuf and Munroe use an “interest-based” structure to mediation sessions as a “detached, independent, impartial facilitator” in an occupation that is still “growing up” as a profession, says Munroe.
There is a broad effort underway in Canada under the Alternative Dispute Resolution Institute of Canada (ADR Institute of Canada Inc.) to standardize at the national level the qualifications and oversight of professionals working in this field.
There are also provincial arms of the organization, such as the Alternative Dispute Resolution Institute of Alberta (ADRIA) which have established two different sets of credentials for mediators.
The “qualified mediator” accreditation is for people whose jobs require some level of mediation skills as a collateral function of what they do on a day-to-day basis. It takes about 80 hours of training.
The “chartered mediator” qualification requires longer training of about 280 hours, involves successful mediation session outcomes, ongoing training and is geared toward independent, third-party mediators.
Sometimes it works out quickly, fairly easily and amicably. Other times, it requires multiple meetings, but either way mediation – especially when it’s started early on during an obvious workplace conflict – can go a long way to resolution of the problem.
Managers can also play the role of mediator, but when a professional, accredited mediator is brought in, it can often start the process fresh where they create a “safe space” where the two parties have trust in the third-party mediator, says Munroe.
“It’s not about reaching an agreement and liking each other,” she explains. “It’s really about reaching understanding and a work plan.”
Knowing how and when to intervene in any workplace conflict situation requires good managers to define their own roles and to support those involved by being transparent about their involvement.
Many companies don’t even have policies about how to handle such situations, she says. There are always several potential solutions to a dispute.
“Mediation is only one of a number of ways to resolve conflict in the workplace,” Munroe says. It should always start by getting the two sides together and addressing it before it becomes a complex problem. If there is no solution or understanding reached, then perhaps mediation is the way to go.
“Organizations … can use mediation and other similar tools, like conflict coaching and training, to be more proactive in how they resolve conflicts within their organization,” says Phaneuf.
Good mediators listen openly and critically. “Asking powerful and provocative questions and listening actively to the answers will help others clarify their thinking,” says Munroe.
Remaining loyal to the process – and it is usually a highly structured mediation process – is critical for all parties if there is going to be any significant resolution.
What companies need to do is to implement a workplace conflict policy, backed up by support mechanisms, to ensure conflicts don’t escalate. “As a healthy organization, you have to ask what you have in place to support staff who are in conflict,” says Munroe.
DEREK SANKEY – Calgary Herald
Curated by Nigerian Institute of Chartered Arbitrators
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