When conflict arises, it can very quickly get out of control, leading to wider team dissatisfaction, a huge impact on productivity and, if not managed well, to costly and time consuming claims of unfair dismissal.

The trick to avoiding these common pitfalls is to stop grievances before they escalate too far and use mediation to ensure you stop the worst from happening – ending up in court.

The signs and stages of conflict

Conflict in the workplace is fairly common. Who hasn’t witnessed disputes between colleagues, or frustrations emerge between line managers and a member of staff?

But when conflict becomes a real source of tension, it can make life for the business, and those directly affected in it, very difficult indeed. Businesses rely on teamwork and working towards common goals, so if frustrations are not quickly resolved, they are very often shared, quickly causing wide spread dissatisfaction.

Often, the initial source of frustration is performance related. A colleague or manager might take issue with another member of staff’s approach, their attitude or even level of productivity. If the cause of the frustration is left to fester and grow, the resulting conflict becomes a serious drain on management time, affects staff morale and employee engagement, lowers productivity, increases staff absence and becomes a huge drain on finances. But it doesn’t have to get that far.

The business case for mediation

Mediation is a tool used to deal with disagreements between individuals in the workplace. Often described as a form of ‘alternative dispute resolution’, or ADR, mediation sits outside the formal grievance and disciplinary procedures.

Mediation works by enabling the parties involved to identify the cause of conflict and reach a satisfactory resolution by means of a clearly stated set of actions in a neutral, non-threatening environment. The process is confidential and ‘without prejudice’.

The process of mediation brings the two sides together to air and reconcile their differences before the ‘emotional contract’ is broken and employment ends.

Rebuilding relationships is essential, and coaching can be offered following mediation and after a formal dispute has been resolved, therefore avoiding claims for unfair or constructive unfair dismissal and hopefully a return of engaged, productive employees.

If the relationship has in fact broken, and parties are facing the court or tribunal, mediation can also provide an alternative informal process before the formality of a tribunal is imposed. In this scenario, mediation is incredibly powerful as it gets both parties to see the merit of the other parties point or case and therefore reduce their own expectations for the financial claim they might make.

Taking the cost out of conflict

The cost of conflict can be manifold, leading to periods of staff absence, sickness costs and a significant loss of productivity.

Conflict also has a huge impact on the management team. Unlikely as they are to have the time for formal proceedings and tackling disputes, or even the skills to do so swiftly and effectively, dealing with conflict takes managers away from running the business causing further loss of productivity and resulting in unhappy customers.

Should conflict reach the stage of no return and an employee claims unfair dismissal, that can be very costly indeed.

Take this real-life example: An employee accused their line manager of bullying and threatened a constructive unfair dismissal claim that could have cost the company over £25,000.

But, by working with a mediator, each party was able to openly state their grievances. Having clearly set out the cause of their frustration, and be presented with the other side’s case, both sides were better able to understand the merit of the others concerns. The employee was also able to set more realistic expectations about the outcome of the case. The result – the case was settled for £3,000, saving the considerable time, stress and the cost of a tribunal.

At the end of the day, mediation is a tried and tested, cost-effective way of managing conflict.

But it’s important to bring in mediation at the early stage of conflict in order to increase your chances of a swift and successful resolution. The longer conflict is left, the more difficult it becomes to open up the situation and widen people’s perspectives. And that’s when the real problems start and your financial costs escalate.

By Becky Hill, Director at HR Now Ltd