By Daniel Hunter

The Federation of Small Businesses’ Manchester and North Cheshire branch has welcomed the launch of a new mediation service for the region whose aims are to help SMEs avoid costly tribunals.

Manchester Mediation Network launched this week at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Business School on Oxford Road, having initially started as a Government pilot project funded by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills in 2012. The new group will work with businesses to prevent workplace disputes before a tribunal situation arises.

The Network is now also supporting the PMA (Professional Mediators’ Association) to establish a North West mediators hub — the first outside London — and officially launched PMA North West alongside Manchester Mediation Network at Tuesday’s event.

Although the number of tribunals has dropped dramatically since the Government introduced new legislation to reduce the number of vexatious claims against employers, with average unfair dismissal awards last year at £10,127, tribunals can cripple smaller firms who also lack the time and skills to successfully defend an allegation in the courts. Legal fees also often run in to the tens of thousands.

The FSB’s Regional Vice Chairman, Holly Bonfield, was one of 20 volunteers to train as a mediator through the pilot, and FSB members in the region can now access free mediation sessions through the Network. She said: “The last thing any small business wants is to end up in the tribunal courts, especially when a mediated solution would, in most cases, lead to a far swifter, less costly outcome for all concerned.

“For the good of business, there really has to be a sea change in attitudes of businesses, both large and small, when it comes to disciplinary processes. While most are familiar with internal ‘grievance’ procedures, the majority don’t know about the alternatives such as mediation and resolution policies, and are naturally wary of new practices. This has to change and mediation needs to become more mainstream.

“Mediation is about getting two parties together in an informal but structured way to resolve their differences — it’s amazing what a ‘sorry’ can do, and a tribunal is the last place anybody wants to solve a problem.”

The practice of mediation is gradually becoming more accepted by UK HR professionals. Not only was MMN instigated by a BIS funded pilot scheme, only recently the Royal Mail agreed to ditch its internal grievance policy procedure in favour of a mediated resolution policy following months of wrangling with unions. The largest council in the country, Kent County Council, has also done likewise, with both organisations now proponents of such HR methods.

In Manchester, Stockport confectionery manufacturer, Swizzels Matlow, has also been instrumental in the setting up of MMN, its HR and Training Manager, Tanya Greaves, has also trained as a mediator through the pilot and now uses the process at the company’s Poynton and New Mills sites with its 600 strong workforce.

David Liddle, President of the Professional Mediators association, and who attended Tuesday’s launch event, added: “Mediation is used successfully in many areas outside of business to resolve problems. The barriers to mediation are cultural, societal, and organisational, and change will take time. Employers and employees alike need to be aware that mediation is simply an alternative form of dispute resolution not a disciplinary tool.”