19 January 2009
Mediation at Work: A Case Study
Written by: Leatham Green – Assistant Director of Personnel & Training – East Sussex County Council
East Sussex County Council is a large, complex and dynamic organisation. It employs around 16,000 people, in over 500 locations, with in excess of 350 different job types and an annual budget of around £1 billion. Like any modern business, the Council is constantly seeking ways to improve the way it delivers services in the most cost effective way possible. This changing environment inevitably has an impact on its employees and despite the professional industrial relations climate that exists locally, the Council does experience a degree of workplace conflict that is costly both in terms of resources and human impact.
Over the past couple of years discussions have taken place with recognised Trade Unions and managers to establish what, if anything, could be done to reduce conflict at work, and where it does exist, improve our practices and procedures in such a way that any dispute is resolved quickly. The Council has taken the opportunity to strengthen the training and support that is offered to all managers to ensure they are better skilled and more confident in dealing with difficult situations and conversations, as well as providing coaching and mentoring as and when required. In addition to this, the Council also strengthened the level, quality and accessibility of the HR advice, providing a professional service that adds value to the business with an emphasis on finding pragmatic solutions rather than getting bogged down in process and bureaucracy.
The next step was to agree improvements to strategy and processes and the consensus from both managers and Trade Unions was to move away from a process that was reactive to one that was proactive with an emphasis on outcomes, shifting resources to support early intervention and resolution. Mediation was identified as the most effective solution.
A proposal to introduce mediation into the workplace was developed and presented to the Council’s Chief Officer (Directors) Management Team and was positively endorsed. The proposal was supported by a clear business case setting out the high level cost of the existing approach to tackling workplace conflict, the cost of introducing mediation, and the potential short and long-term benefits. It was agreed that the formal introduction of mediation would be made in line with the changes in employment legislation from April 2009.
Preparations for the proposed changes commenced in January 2008. We worked with Globis to train a pool of in-house mediators selected from different professional groups at a senior level across the Council. This also included the involvement of senior Trade Union officials. The mediation training was first class. We now have 12 accredited mediators including two from the recognised Trade Unions. Wherever possible, the Council will engage one of its in-house mediators to undertake a mediation, however it reserves the right to engage external mediators as and when agreed by both parties.
The following actions were also undertaken:
- Revised “Dignity at Work” and Grievance Policies to establish mediation as the first stage in resolving the conflict/dispute.
- Agreed the clause to be inserted into the contract of employment, for employees recruited from April 2009, which establishes mediation as the Council’s preferred method to resolve workplace conflict and dispute.
- Offered mediation on a voluntary basis to any employees with outstanding disputes.
- Raised the profile of mediation as an effective tool in conflict resolution with managers and employees across the organisation.
- Achieved formal endorsement from the Cabinet of the Council to changes in policy and procedure.
The foundations for the positive introduction of workplace mediation have now been achieved.
Throughout our planning phase we have successfully mediated on a dozen cases and all have achieved an effective outcome for the parties concerned. A number of cases involved employees who had been absent from work due to the workplace conflict and they have now returned to work and are making a valuable contribution to the Council. There is still much work to be done and no doubt the cultural shift away from an adversarial standpoint to one of a speedy and satisfactory resolution may take time. However, the success we have had so far bodes well for a brighter future.