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The workplace mediator’s cheat sheet

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Keen to learn more about mediation skills that can help you to diffuse arguments between colleagues and make you an indispensable conflict resolver in the workplace? Loong Seng Onn, executive director at Singapore Mediation Centre, identifies two principles of mediation.

Mediation is a voluntary process in which the parties to a dispute engage the assistance of a neutral third party (called the mediator), to facilitate negotiations between them with a view to resolving their differences amicably.

Principle 1: Setting fair criteria for settlement

In a dispute, everyone wants to be treated fairly, and they are much more likely to agree to a settlement if they believe it is a fair one. The problem is that everyone has a different idea of what is “fair”, and they often assume that the other party is making “unfair” demands.

In order to persuade parties to see eye to eye, it is useful to have an objective standard or criterion that both sides can agree with. Using objective criteria produces sensible, lasting agreements and enhances the working relationship between parties. By insisting on the use of objective criteria, parties are able to rely less on bargaining and produce face-saving and justifiable results.

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The mediator should therefore encourage parties to think of criteria that will be persuasive to both sides. It could be useful to consider market price, standard operating procedure, precedents or industry practice as a means of arriving at objective criteria.

Take for instance a negotiation between an employee Max and his HR manager Aileen on what is the salary to be paid after five years of employment. Rather than just dealing with the claims made by Max and Aileen, a mediator may suggest that they obtain some data on the prevailing market salary for a person of Max’s qualifications and experience. This could possibly lead to a justifiable and face-saving settlement.

Principle 2: Considering alternatives to a settlement

When deciding whether to accept a mediated settlement, it is also important for parties to ask themselves what would happen if there is NO settlement. In other words, what are their alternatives to a negotiated agreement and are they better or worse?

Alternatives are outcomes that are achieved outside of mediation and thus, do not require the cooperation of the other party. In a business dispute, common alternatives include going to court, or giving up on the case and doing nothing. In a workplace dispute, alternatives may include maintaining the status quo, complaining to the boss or HR, or quitting your job if the dispute remains unresolved.

Rather than just dealing with the claims made by Max and Aileen, a mediator may suggest that they obtain some data on the prevailing market salary.

By encouraging parties to compare the offer on the table to their alternatives, the mediator is actually helping them to make a decision on whether a negotiated settlement is favourable to them. An experienced mediator will often ask parties to assess their Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA), Worst Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (WATNA) and Most Likely Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (MLATNA) in comparison to the possibility of a mediated settlement.

Alternatives should only be explored during a private session where the other party is not present. This allows the parties to evaluate their bottom lines in a confidential setting. The mediator can also ask each party to consider the other side’s BATNA, in order to better appreciate the strength of the other side’s bargaining position.

For example, Lin, an employee with a very specialised skill set has made a grave mistake and the employer, Rashid, is considering imposing a financial penalty. Lin agrees that she has made a mistake but is dead set against the initial penalty and has suggested another sum or she would resign.

Rashid has to consider his alternatives to settlement – if Lin resigns, Rashid would have to spend time re-hiring, and re-training someone to reach the same caliber as Lin, which may take many months. A better way forward may be to consider Lin’s offer and come up with other options (such as getting Lin to undertake additional projects) rather than insisting on the initial penalty sum.

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