Can HR mediate?


To answer this question let’s look at a scenario.  Two employees in a team, Bob and Sue, have fallen out.  Jill the team manager has tried to help them but has only succeeded in making it worse.  She has therefore asked her HR Business Partner, Jo, to mediate and help Bob and Sue resolve their disagreement.  So can Jo mediate this dispute?  I don’t see why not, provided that:

  1. She has the necessary knowledge to know what to do
  2. She has the competence to do it effectively
  3. It is appropriate given her situation in the organisation

Taking the first of these criteria, what knowledge would Jo need to have?  Most people have a vague idea of what mediation is – you might hear ‘it’s getting them to sort things out without fighting’, ‘bringing them together so that they talk about it’ etc.  However, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and trying to mediate between two people who are emotionally invested in a relationship conflict can potentially go badly wrong.  For instance, a key principle of mediation is that whoever is doing the mediating should remain impartial.  If Jo is unaware of this when she sits down with Bob and Sue and an ill judged turn of phrase or ambiguous question is interpreted by Bob as siding with Sue, Jo’s credibility as a mediator is gone and the process is doomed.  So as a basic requirement to mediate Jo will have had to be trained in mediation skills and processes.  We are not talking full mediator training but she needs basic knowledge on how to nip low level conflict in the bud. 

However even if Jo knows what she should be doing, can she do it?  This is where competence comes in.  I can read books and go on courses on how to make a good presentation but still make a mess of it when I stand up in front of a room full of people because unless I’m just a natural presenter I need to practise my skills to become competent.  It is the same with mediating people in conflict.  We know we shouldn’t be problem solving for them, the solutions should come from them, but we are so used to giving advice and helping people that it is difficult to hold back from giving solutions.  I’ve trained many HR people in simple mediation skills and after we’ve finished the role play they have turned round and said it is simply not for them.  There is nothing wrong in that – mediating is a skill like any other and just because we work in HR it doesn’t mean we are born mediators.

Let’s say Jo knows what to do and is competent.  The final question is whether it is appropriate that she mediates.  Having worked as an in-house mediator as well as an external supplier I can see both sides of this.  There are advantages to Jo mediating this situation in that she knows the organisational culture, she understands the jargon and is available whenever the company asks her to be.  On the other hand, she will find it much more difficult to convince Bob and Sue that she is truly impartial, that she can take off her ‘HR hat’ and be independent.  Also, she is likely to have only limited experience – how often has she done this before?  Compared to an external specialist whose job it is to supply mediation services it is unlikely she will have the same level of experience.  Which is fine if the situation does not demand it – so a critical question is when can it be managed in-house and when does external support need to be accessed?

In my view the sensible approach for organisations to take is multi-layered.  Ideally we want our employees to be sorting issues out themselves.  So we must train them in having the necessary difficult conversations with fellow employees so any disagreement or miscommunication can be cleared up right away.  If that doesn’t happen, at the next level we need managers who are both competent and confident to identify and manage low level conflict.  They need training in spotting the signs and then dealing with it early on. Conflict Management - tiered approachAll too often our managers avoid conflict, seeing it as ‘too difficult’ or risky.  Unfortunately this can easily result in conflict escalating until HR get the call or even a grievance letter lands on the managers desk.  At this point the organisation needs more specialist conflict skills, and often these are found in HR though this needn’t be the case.  In larger organisations there may be trained mediators from any function who can be brought in to mediate, but it is important that companies have access to external support when needed. 

So can HR mediate?  Actually the critical factor is not whether Jo is from HR or not – it is whether she has the knowledge, the competence and it is appropriate for her to mediate.  If the answer is yes to all three, then why not?


Mediation4 is running a Conflict Management Skills for HR workshop on 19th March.  For further details click here.

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