In the 1980s there were 20 employment rights under which an employee could make a tribunal claim; now there are more than 60. The removal of tribunal fees by the Supreme Court in 2017 has led to a rush of new and bottled-up cases (numbers of claims doubled in some regions of the UK in the first three months according to the National User Group of Employment Tribunals).
Handled badly, staff complaints and grievances are a lose-lose situation. They drain management time, there’s rising costs relating to tribunals and legal fees, and more stress and disruption for all levels of staff involved. The potential for whistleblowing and more serious allegations keeps on increasing.
At Suffolk, we wanted to create a mediation culture: where staff at all levels look to mediation first to clear the air, taking the chance to talk through a situation openly with the other party and an independent mediator. Workplace mediation has been increasingly used by employers over the last 20 years - but service offerings have been patchy, not always understood, and too often only used as a last resort, when organisations are looking to fix relationships that are already irreparably damaged. Our approach was to set up an in-house workplace mediation service, training staff to lead and run the offering, doing all we could to make mediation accessible and ‘ordinary’, that people would feel comfortable with.
An employee survey in 2016 had initially helped us think differently about the connection between problems in workplace relationships and both physical and mental health. In a context where all councils are having to do more with fewer people and less money, there have been added strains from job insecurity and competition. We needed to embed our ASPIRE values into the wellbeing agenda and make more of the opportunity afforded by having Public Health as part of our Council team. Alongside this, we wanted to develop a new Learning Offer related to the qualities of the 21stcentury public servant whilst spending less on what we could provide. These factors were the catalyst to do more to support good working relationships, and to help staff try to deal with minor issues early, as part of the wider staff wellbeing strategy. Suffolk already had a number of staff networks, strong occupational health support and an Employee Assistance Programme; an effective workplace mediation service was the missing link.
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, what skills they would bring, and invited to a face-to-face meeting to discuss the role in more depth. Twelve staff were selected in order to have enough mediators to meet the typical demand, to ensure the right balance between having enough resource to meet demand; not taking mediators away from their day-to-day responsibilities too often; but also to ensure there is regular practice for everyone. There was a high level of interest in the mediation training; the places could have been filled twice over, partly because of the kind of transferable skills staff hold, but also because of the culture of the council, where staff want actively to help others and make a positive difference to the working environment.
The training was delivered by a workplace mediation, investigations and conversation skills expert from CMP Resolutions, a firm that has 30 years’ experience of mediation services in large organisations. This meant instant credibility with everyone, a comprehensive basis of skills and processes, and a structure of CPD that Suffolk could draw on for the long-term via CMP’s refresher sessions. We introduced bi-monthly meetings for the mediators to discuss experiences and challenges (while respecting confidentiality). Two of our mediators act as the co-ordinator, scoping the mediations and determining which mediator/s should take on each case, – taking into account any particular sensitivities, existing knowledge and relationships, as well determining those cases where an independent mediator is needed from outside the council.
An important factor in the success of the service has been manager awareness and support. Managers have needed to agree to staff release for the training and to deliver mediation sessions themselves at any point in a year; a minimum of four cases across 12 months. The backing 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, at a time when HR resources are more limited, mediation has also played a significant role in encouraging more personal responsibility for dealing with issues informally, not always looking for a formal organisational response.
Feedback from managers and staff has been very positive; and mediators themselves, from their experience, see the services as invaluable in terms of 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 & wellbeing advisor and workplace mediator, Suffolk County Council.