What is Mediation?

Mediation is an important way for staff members of United Nations agencies and other international civil servants to resolve workplace disagreements. This article will help you better understand what is mediation and how it can resolve workplace problems. It also contains some frequently asked questions relevant to staff members of international organizations.

What is Mediation?

What is Mediation?

Mediation is a voluntary and confidential form of resolving workplace disputes. It involves an independent, impartial person helping two or more people or groups reach a solution to a workplace dispute that is acceptable to everyone involved in the dispute.

Causes of Conflict

Workplace conflicts can have as many causes as you can imagine. They usually involve a breakdown of relations between two or more people who need to work together, which results in a work problem.

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Frequent causes of such conflicts are bad management practices, unfair treatment, unclear job roles or expectations, inadequate training, or poor communication. They can also be caused by disputes over resources, a lack of work or appropriate duties provided to a staff member, or a lack of information (or misinformation) provided to a staff member by the management of an international organization or a supervisor. During your career in an international organization, you may work in several countries, with different teams and reporting to various supervisors – all within a multicultural environment.  You may face high expectations and competing demands, coupled with limited resources. These factors among others could lead to an increased likelihood of a workplace conflict.

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Harmful effects of workplace conflict

If you are reading this article, you may have seen first-hand some of the harmful effects that workplace disagreements can have on colleagues and even organizations. These include loss of trust among colleagues, absenteeism or a negative impact on staff health, decreased staff morale and higher employee “turnover” (i.e. staff members may leave the work unit or even the organization due to the dispute).  Lastly, these disputes can escalate into formal staff grievances, staff appeals or litigation (such as in front of the ILO Administrative Tribunal or other administrative tribunals).

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How do international organizations try to resolve workplace conflict?

International organizations attempt to resolve workplace conflicts in a variety of ways. They often use disciplinary and grievance procedures. In fact, in the #MeToo era, international organizations are under increased pressure to investigate conflicts that may involve misconduct by staff members.[1] They also try informal ways. Large organizations such as the World Food Programme, have their own Offices of Ombudsman and Mediation Services to try to resolve concerns. As mentioned above, workplace conflicts oftentimes also end up being considered by an organization’s tribunal (e.g., World Bank Administrative Tribunal or African Development Bank Administrative Tribunal) or in binding arbitration when made available (used by among others the International Renewable Energy Agency and the Global Green Growth Institute).

Mediation is unique among these options: it is confidential, no one can force you to participate, and it involves a trained neutral person, known as a “mediator”, to help. You and the other persons involved have a chance to discuss together to reach an agreement to the dispute. And you remain in control.

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Frequently Asked Questions about Mediation:

  1. 1
    Will a mediator decide my issue? No, mediators do not make judgments or determine outcomes. They ask questions that help uncover underlying problems and the people involved in mediation agree on the outcome.
  2. 2
    Isn’t mediation useless when it is against a supervisor or a powerful person? Actually, mediation can be very useful in such circumstances. The mediator will provide you with a safe space and an equal chance to be heard and explore the issues. The mediator does this by setting and enforcing ground rules for the discussion. If the rules are not respected, the mediator should intervene. You also can withdraw from the discussion if it is unfair. No one can you force you to agree to anything.
  3. 3
    Will I have to talk to the person with whom I am in conflict? Yes, mediation usually requires at least one face-to-face meeting and discussion. The mediator will carefully control the meeting to make sure that you are protected.
  4. 4
    When should I use mediation? Mediation can be used at any time of a dispute, but it is most useful before a person’s positions become hardened. However, if there is a willingness to engage in mediation, this is a positive sign.
  5. 5
    What are the benefits of mediation? Mediation allows you to safely discuss with the other person and for you to remain in control of the outcome. It also reduces stress and encourages cooperation. Importantly, it can save you time because it can be started and finished quickly. It also saves costs for both the people involved and the organization. This is in contrast to litigation which can take years and is costly.
  6. 6
    In what kind of situations is mediation helpful? Mediation is suitable for many situations, such as personality clashes or relationship breakdowns between colleagues and when managers need help to solve problems. It is useful when no court judgment or third-party decision is required.
  7. 7
    Does mediation work? A 2008 survey by the UK-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 99% of organizations that used mediation said it helped to resolve workplace disputes. (However a recent Workplace Employment Relations Study found that only 7% of UK workplaces used mediation in the last year.) When done properly, mediation participants are generally satisfied.
  8. 8
    What is the difference between mediation and other informal ways of resolving disputes? The most important difference is the involvement of the mediator. There is a risk that when organizations attempt to informally settle disputes without using a mediator, there is no neutral, independent party to protect confidences and enforce ground rules and equality.
  9. 9
    Is Mediation ever appropriate for allegations of sexual harassment, harassment, bullying or abuse of authority? It depends. If inappropriate or unwelcome conduct arises from a misunderstanding or from the habits or outlook of a person, it may be appropriate. On the other hand, serious allegations of sexual harassment, gross misconduct, criminal behaviour or instances where a person has acted out of selfish or malicious motives might not be appropriate for mediation. A good resource for understanding your organization’s standards and values is its staff regulations or the International Civil Service Commission’s Standards of Conduct.

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If you are in a workplace conflict and want to consider mediation, what should you do?

You first can approach your organization’s ombudsman, staff association or human resources department to explain the issue and ask if it is possible to obtain support for mediation to solve it. Who you approach is up to you and this depends on who you trust.

Bear in mind that unless your organization has a mediator on staff, mediation usually has a cost. It is ultimately your organization’s decision to organize mediation.

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Mediator qualifications and experience

 If your organization agrees to sponsor mediation, ask about the selected mediator’s qualifications. You will want to know that the mediator is independent, has no conflict of interest and has training and experience in mediation. As mentioned above, the mediator is not going to decide your issue, so it does not matter if they are a lawyer or have knowledge about human resources or your area of work. What really matters is whether the mediator can manage the mediation fairly, by providing you an equal opportunity to express your concerns in a safe and respectful setting.

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The individual meeting with the mediator

If you are to participate in mediation, you absolutely should speak with the mediator one on one before the mediation. During this discussion, the mediator should explain to you how the mediation will be handled, discuss with you any concerns that you have about the process, learn about the conflict from your perspective and better understand your overall objectives. The mediator should also ask if you feel confident to meet with the other person(s) in the mediator's presence. At this point, if you do not feel comfortable with anything, raise this to the mediator.

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Reaching an agreement through mediation

If during mediation you are considering an agreement with the other person, congratulations! This is a positive step in the process. To reach a useful agreement, make sure that it is clear, forward-looking and deals with the core issues. As an example, there would be little benefit to a mediation agreement that places blame for past communication problems, but it is very valuable if everyone agrees to hold weekly organizational meeting to improve communication. Similarly, the best agreements are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, reliable and time-based). This will make it easier for everyone to abide by the agreement.

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We can help!

I hope that this information helps you to better understand mediation. If you have specific questions or need a mediator, please contact Staff Lawyer.

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[1] For example, in 2018, UN System entities began adopting the “UN System Model Policy on Sexual Harassment”. The policy defines sexual harassment as resulting from a culture of discrimination and privilege, based on unequal gender relations and power dynamics. Will this result in more investigations and disciplinary processes for staff that are in workplace conflicts that involve gender issues?