Taking a Long Look at Yourself…

Bidean nam Bian, Glencoe
One of the disciplines that underpins mediation is the benefit that comes from reflecting on how a recent process has run. But it’s a habit that can have much wider benefits.

How well prepared was I? What went well, that I might want to repeat? Is there anything that I can learn and improve for next time? Reflective practice is considerably easier with a colleague to help prompt the thought process and provide constructive challenges to assumptions and conclusions, but it’s valuable to have a few techniques to guide yourself through the process when you’re alone. To do this effectively, it’s important to have ‘wound down’ properly from the process itself, taking the time to clear your mind enough to reflect more objectively on aspects of performance. In view of that, I thought I’d consider a range of events I’ve attended recently that turn out to have had a common theme running through them: mindfulness.

Connecting Sport and Business

There was an excellent Metis Edinburgh session recently, featuring a talk by Tony Stanger. After a career in high performance sports coaching, he has built a business from taking the disciplines and approaches that deliver in high level sport and applying them in a business context. One of his take-home messages was that to be a great leader, and draw the best from your staff, you also need to be a great coach. Through focused coaching, it is possible to embed thinking and approaches that will allow staff to consistently deliver better of themselves and grow their career while making the organisation more adaptable to changing business pressures.

One of the things that struck me after listening to Tony, and taking part in the discussion afterwards, was the overlap between the reflective practice I follow after mediating and the coaching/management approach Tony was encouraging. Alongside my business activities, I also coach High Performance match officials with Scottish Rugby. Much of that coaching builds on instilling a discipline of preparation and self-analysis. My input is primarily to facilitate the referees through that process – planning, problem solving and strategy development – alongside helping them to identify the areas on which they should be focusing and the most effective ways for them to improve and develop.

Stress and work

These approaches, underpinned by mindfulness practices that unblock thought processes, continue to grow in a business context, albeit their focus is primarily on senior managers rather than wider staff. This point was brought home to me at an Institute of Directors session this week, led by the excellent Gillian Dalgliesh, titled “Managing Stress in the Workplace”. Alongside considering the physiology behind stress and anxiety, and the long-term impacts arising from them, we ran through some techniques to manage stress in ourselves and others, many based on being mindful of the relevant sensations and taking action to address the triggers.

Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Sutherland

All of this links neatly back to the increasing awareness and growing use of mindfulness practices for business leaders, bringing me to the retreat I attended on the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Sutherland a few weeks ago. Organised and hosted by Natural Change, the retreat aims to “help you reconnect with yourself, with others and with nature to explore what matters to you”.

Natural Change Wilderness Retreats are for people who want to make a change in their personal life, in their professional work, in the world around them – or in all three.

The week featured an interesting blend of solo mindfulness techniques, paired facilitated reflection, slow contemplative walking and a more intense “solo” (an afternoon/evening spent alone in a remote part of the glen). For a more rounded view of the week, check out these updates from other attendees James Scipioni and Sarah Williams. For me, I came away with having rediscovered my love of being in remote countryside, and with a better understanding of why that is so good for maintaining my mental health – hence my trip last week to Bidean nam Bian in Glencoe.

Drawing things together

The common thread through all of these paragraphs is the emphasis on slowing down, being more ‘present’ and constructively analysing recent performance. Of course, the key is the “constructive” part of that, something that only really develops with practice.

This is a theme that continues, particularly in relation to conflict/dispute resolution and mediation. The beginning of June sees an event organised by Core Solutions at which Tim Hicks will explore the neural basis of conflict and communication, based on his recently published book on the subject.

As a topic that continues to gain interest, I’d be keen to find out other people’s experience of exercises in mindfulness, centring and grounding – do people find them universally beneficial? Do you find it really effective and helpful? Have you given it a try and moved on because it didn’t work for you? Or does it all seem a bit ‘new age’ to try in the first place?

Reflections from Tbilisi

Mother Georgia

Kartlis Deda – Mother Georgia overlooking Tbilisi

I spent the second week of April in Tbilisi, Georgia, delivering training on Conciliation of Collective Labour Disputes*.  As with all training courses, and journeys to other countries, I learnt a huge amount from the trip, so I thought I’d reflect on the key points through this blog-post.

Vocabulary

I’ve had numerous conversations in recent months about the language used in and around mediation and other alternative forms of dispute resolution.  Conciliation and mediation are used interchangeably in Georgia, as they often are in the UK, but in many places around the world they have different meanings. This is something that I have increasingly noticed people find confusing.  It gets worse when you start to debate whether or not your style of mediation is facilitative, evaluative or transformative, at which point people not involved in the profession often glaze over while ‘mediation geeks’ get excited about when they might employ each approach. 

For my part, I think it would be better, in promoting the use of mediation (and other forms of ADR), for people to use consistent and, by preference, simpler terminology.  This is a big enough topic for Scottish Mediation to have committed the whole of their Mediate 2019 conference this November, and titled it The Words We Use.  It should be a fascinating discussion, and perhaps we can start to find some consensus.

Mediation as a voluntary process
Tbilisi trainees

Participants in the ITCILO Conciliation of Labour Disputes course in Tbilisi, April 2019, complete their final assessments.

A consistent theme raised by the participants in Georgia, many of whom were already experienced practicing mediators, related to the problems they face due to conciliation of collective disputes being a statutory step without which industrial action by a union would be illegal. This means people go into it as a necessary step in escalating their dispute rather than primarily as a means to resolve it.  My main experience of compulsory mediation comes through the Employment Tribunal application system and the Scottish Sheriff Courts. 

In the former, an applicant to the Tribunal has to go through ACAS Early Conciliation in order to get a code that allows them to complete the online ET application form.  When this system was introduced, it was tied to applicants also paying a fee to the Tribunal service.  As a result, few respondents (the employer against whom the Tribunal application is raised) had any incentive to engage with the process: regardless of the merits (or lack thereof) of the case, why conciliate when the applicant may not have enough money to submit their claim in the first place?  The removal of the fees has resulted in an increasing number of applications people who were inhibited from applying because they couldn’t afford the fee.  However, many respondents still seem reluctant to engage with the conciliation, and it’s difficult not to see that as a factor of it simply being part of the process rather than being seen as a genuine opportunity to find a mutually acceptable outcome.

With the Sheriff Courts, I have found many of the parties not yet ready to mediate, but having been ordered to do so.  A significant majority have reached a agreement, but this has often involved significant preparatory work so they are better aware of the process they are entering and the opportunity it represents to have some control of the outcome.  In such cases, the mediation is, however, genuinely voluntary so provides a real alternative to presenting their case in court with the associated stress, time and costs.

What does ‘success’ look like?

Following on from the above point, some of the mediators in Tbilisi were slightly despondent about their chances of success when starting a mediation. If the conciliation is just “part of the process” what are the chances it can be successful. 

But what IS success in a mediation?

The Tbilisi training team: Soledad Schenone, Malcolm Currie, Sharon Wakeford, Kinan Bahnassi and Ebrahim Patelia

It’s tempting to see a successful mediation only as one that ends in agreement, but that’s not always possible, especially with collective disputes where Politics and politics are in play. In that sense, it could be a success to help the parties better understand the nature of the disagreement they’re having. Or to help them identify options for settlement, without them having actually determined any preference between them. Or simply to understand their own needs (as opposed to wants) as well as those of the other party.

Ultimately, the role of the mediator is to help parties on their journey to a mutually acceptable outcome.  If that is at the start of the journey, perhaps it is success enough to point people in the right direction, while another mediator, later in the journey, might see them safely home.

* The training was commissioned by the International Training Center of the International Labour Organisation

To mediate, or not to mediate, that is the question

DSCN0199Mediation has been around for a long time, and has been used very successfully in many, many situations.

Despite that, many employers have been slow to adopt mediation as an approach, often reluctant to put it in place early enough to prevent some situations becoming intractable.  Indeed, it seems to be seen as an option of last resort.

Does this come from a lack of understanding of what mediation is and does? Or is it seen as an unnecessary additional expense? Whatever the reasons, the evidence suggests that it can be extremely successful, at least for those who believe it can be.  ACAS research published in 2012 showed mediation to be significantly more successful where an employer genuinely commits to the process.  Conversely, it is less effective where an employer is reluctant to use it.  It is not unreasonable to conclude, therefore, that the results are to a large extent self-fulfilling prophecies.

The paradox is that the statistics also show that mediation is second only to direct communication in successfully resolving issues between employees.

In many cases, those trying it have done so with internal mediators. While there are clear benefits from in-house mediators, this approach also needs care to avoid individuals perceiving a mediator employed by their company as being less impartial.  Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant, the perception is the key to the success of the process, so the results may not be what might have been hoped.  As a result, internal mediation may not be the appropriate approach in all cases.  Ultimately, the relative costs of employing an external mediator can pale into insignificance compared to the lost productivity that comes from letting a situation persist or deteriorate.

One conclusion was that one poor result can colour an employer’s view of the value of mediation as a whole.  However, further ACAS research concluded:

more than four in five (82%) [employers] said it had resolved
the issues either completely or partly

A key benefit of mediation is that there is little to be lost in trying it.  In this context, very few independent mediators would hesitate to have a conversation about their approach and to answer any questions that anyone involved might have.  It is better for both those involved and their employer to enter with a genuine commitment to find a mutually acceptable outcome or it is less likely to succeed.

If you’d like to know more about the mediation and dispute resolution services offered by Strathesk Resolutions, please e-mail contact@strathesk.co.uk or call Malcolm on 07736068787.

Good Riddance to Employment Tribunal Fees

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but the Cameron Government’s decision to charge fees for people to raise claims in the Employment Tribunal has finally been shown to be illegal.

Created with Nokia Refocus

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court has ruled that charging people up to £1200 so they can challenge the legality of their employer’s actions is illegal.

Fees were never introduced in Northern Ireland, and it is notable that there was no drop off in the number of applications to go to their Industrial Tribunal.  Meanwhile, across Great Britain, ET applications plummeted by 70%.  In Scotland, the SNP Government stood for election in 2015 with a pledge that, as soon as they had the power to do so, they would legislate to remove Employment Tribunal fees, justifying this on the premise that someone who has just unfairly lost their employment is unlikely to be able to find the money and will, therefore, be denied access to justice.

Introduced in 2013, fees were initially justified as being to reduce the number of “weak claims”, though a financial incentive later became apparent with the Justice Minister at the time stating

We want people, where they can, to pay a fair contribution for the system they are using, which will encourage them to look for alternatives.

That case was never particularly convincing and the result, inevitably, was that many people with a valid claim were unable to bring it because they couldn’t pay the fee.

Alongside the fees, the Cameron Government also introduced mandatory Early Conciliation.  This is a process whereby the parties, with facilitation by ACAS, can try to reach an out of court settlement and is something applicants have to do before they can complete their ET application.  Although there’s nothing wrong with this in principle, my experience of it wasn’t good.  I have found few employers prepared to negotiate towards a settlement, preferring to gamble on whether or not the applicant could find enough cash for the fee.  Perhaps, with fees now found to be illegal, there will be a greater incentive for all sides to take a more pragmatic, conciliatory approach.

Dave Prentis, the UNISON General Secretary, welcomed the Supreme Court ruling saying:

The government has been acting unlawfully, and has been proved wrong – not just on simple economics, but on constitutional law and basic fairness too.

In this context, the positive role of trade unions shouldn’t be underestimated, and not just because it is through UNISON’s expertise and persistence that this ruling has been achieved, but more locally and practically as well.  A well-trained union rep can defuse and head off the vast majority of cases referred to them, most often through facilitating a pragmatic solution, sometimes through persuading an individual that their case doesn’t stack up.  As an example, this leads to a significant reduction in the number of cases going to grievance, and those that do proceed tend to be much better presented.  This is something that many employers could easily miss.

That principle also filters through to ET applications.  Unions take great care in presenting cases, cases they support are exceptionally unlikely to be regarded by the Tribunal as “malicious, vexatious or frivolous” or “in bad faith”, and a significant proportion are successful.

Of course, most trade unions opted to pay these fees for their members, but many, many people who weren’t in a union must have been denied access to justice by this ill-conceived policy.  While it is likely that those who applied to the ET will have their fees repaid, at this stage it seems likely that those who couldn’t afford the fee at the time will have missed their opportunity, but it remains to be seen if any pragmatism will be shown in that respect.

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the issues raised in this article, so please leave a comment or, if you’d like to discuss anything more directly, please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

Disciplinary Penalties: You’ll Have Done Your Time?

This is an interesting one.  An  Employment Appeal Tribunal has recently ruled that an employer acted fairly in dismissing someone while taking into account a number of disciplinary issues that were, according to their procedures, ‘spent’.

The case is an extreme one, with the employer having taken 18 formal actions against the individual over a 12 year period.  The employee then did something that carried a mandatory final written warning.  However, the employer decided that the previous disciplinary record, in spite of all penalties having expired, should be taken alongside the latest misdemeanour, leading to their deciding to dismiss the individual.  Most Disciplinary Procedures are quite clear on how long a warning will remain on an individual’s personal file, and most employees will assume that, once that time has passed, they no longer need to worry about the record. There are, however, policies that say a record can be kept longer (even indefinitely) for a range of purposes – possibly the most common being to use as a deciding factor in a redundancy situation, but there are others.

For years, I’ve advised people to make a Data Subject Access Request for their personal information once they’re clear of the penalty, so anything that should no longer be on their employment record will be removed, just in case they get taken into account in any future situation (e.g. redundancy).

One of the problems is that very few companies have the resources to be meticulous about keeping their staff records (or their other filing) absolutely up to date.  The result is that, even if the policies say nothing, records of things that have happened years ago can remain on the file to be seen by whoever next needs to access it.  If that happens to be for a future disciplinary, is it reasonable to expect an investigating officer to ignore that information once they’ve read it?  They may try hard not to consider it but, subconsciously perhaps, they now know this individual has a history.

Even if that history has no relevance to current circumstances.

 

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment. Alternatively, if you’ve been affected by a similar issue and would like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

Anti-Bullying Week highlights a growing problem in UK workplaces

Bullying & harassment is a growing problem in UK workplaces, but we shouldn’t accept that as just a fact of life.  

Today is the start of Anti-Bullying week.  Designated by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), the focus is largely on bullying amongst children, but it also encapsulates issues that arise in the workplace.

What is workplace bullying?

Bully Online define workplace bullying as follows:

Bullying is conduct that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose likely or actual cumulative effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform.

There are loads of other definitions, but they all boil down to very similar messages.

So why bully?

A few of the more commonly reported reasons are:

  • The bully is insecure, possibly because they are being bullied themselves;
  • They feel threatened that someone in their team may be more capable than they are;
  • They’ve been promoted into a management role but have never been properly trained to do it;
  • They are fitting in with the organisational management culture

Experience suggests that many perpetrators are unaware of the longer term emotional impacts of their behaviours.  To someone suffering at the hands of a bully it may seem trite to say so, but challenging the behaviour, and highlighting how it makes you feel as an individual, is often the most effective way to make it stop.  Sadly, the creeping vulnerability that develops when bullying continues unchecked, along with the perceived impossibility of building a case[1], often makes people decide it is easier to either suffer or leave their job.

All too often such behaviour flows from the top, especially from managers who pride themselves on “running a tight ship” or being “robust” in their management – just two of the many terms used to justify behaviour that is actually unacceptable, ones that can flag up the possibility that someone they manage may see their approach as bullying.

Economic Impact

Aside from the human effects, the economic impact is huge.  The performance of those being bullied drops, often they are off sick more frequently, and awareness of what is happening can have a serious impact on wider morale and productivity.  A year ago ACAS published a guide on tackling workplace bullying that referred to 2008 research indicating that workplace bullying costs the UK economy almost £18 billion.  Sadly, their recent evidence is also that bullying is on the rise, something no doubt exacerbated by the continuing economic difficulties facing many companies and organisations.

Let’s hope, for everyone’s sakes, that knowing more about workplace bullying will help to identify it and stop it.

 

 

[1] Of course, there ARE ways of building a case, get in touch if you’d like some advice.

To Mediate or Not to Mediate, That is the Question…

DSCN0199Mediation has been around for a long time, and has been used very successfully in many, many situations.  Despite that, I have found many employers quite slow to adopt mediation as an approach, and often reluctant to put it in place early enough to prevent some situations becoming intractable. In some cases, it seems to be an option of last resort rather than a means to head problems off at the pass.

Part of this seems to come from a lack of understanding of what mediation is and does, part of it from seeing it as an additional expense.  In many cases, those that have tried have done so using internal mediators – while that may work in some situations, staff tend to perceive a mediator employed by their company as having a conflict of interests that means they can’t be impartial.  Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant, the perception is the key to the success of the process, so the results have perhaps not been what might have been hoped.  But the relative costs of employing an external mediator will often pale into insignificance compared to the lost productivity that comes from letting a situation persist or deteriorate.

Interestingly, ACAS research published in 2012 showed that mediation is significantly more successful in workplaces where the employer is genuinely committed to the process, less so where they are reluctant to use it – so the results are, to a large extent, self-fulfilling prophecies.  The paradox is that the statistics also show that mediation is second only to direct communication in successfully resolving issues between employees.

One conclusion from the ACAS research was that one poor result can colour an employer’s view of the value of mediation as a whole.  To a large extent, one of the benefits of mediation is that there is little to be lost in trying it, but please do so with a genuine commitment to find mutually acceptable solutions or it is less likely to succeed.

If you’d like to know more about the mediation and dispute resolution services offered by Strathesk Resolutions, please e-mail contact@strathesk.co.uk or call Malcolm on 07736068787.

What Can Strathesk Resolutions Do For You?

Approaching Bass Rock from the south

Strathesk Resolutions specialises in helping businesses to identify, resolve and, ideally, avoid individual or collective problems with their staff through targeted analysis, mediation, training, coaching and mentoring.

We draw on years of experience working collaboratively and constructively to achieve the right outcome to complex industrial relations situations.  We deliver straightforward advice, training and solutions that encourage and develop relationships based on understanding, cooperation and trust.

Our open and honest approach ensures fairness to all sides whilst guaranteeing the needs of both the individual and the organisation are properly considered. Having worked with Trade Unions for years we understand the need for clear and concise communication, whilst influencing and negotiating in an expert manner.

You can expect us to thoroughly explore your problems, ensuring that we properly understand the problem before we start working towards a solution.  We will also keep an open line of communication to ensure that you are fully aware and involved in developing approaches.

Accredited Mediator

While my previous career involved mediating between various parties on a regular basis, I’d never had my skills in this respect properly reflected through accreditation, so I decided it was time to address that. Thanks to training provided by The Mediation Partnership, I am now accredited mediator.

The training was both interesting and challenging, featuring a number of role play scenarios that were outside of my previous experience and allowed a wide-ranging exploration of approaches and techniques to develop my skills.

The course is accredited by the Scottish Mediation Register.

 

The future for Employment Tribunal fees?

Applications to the Employment Tribunal in Great Britain have nose-dived since fees were introduced in 2014. But is it good for 70% more people to bite their lip? And is there an alternative to calling their bluff?

Recent Employment Tribunal figures show that the total number of claims for unfair dismissal in Great Britain fell to 12,652 in 14/15.  Compare this to the 92,000+ unfair dismissal claims in 11/12.  While cause does not necessarily imply effect, the timing of this fall correlates exactly with the introduction of fees for each application to the ET.  The recent figures confirm the trend implied by previous figures since the introduction of the fees, evidence enough to convince the current Scottish Government to announce that, under the new powers in the Scotland Act, and IF they are re-elected in May, that they will withdraw the fees from the Scottish ET (which would bring Scotland into line with Northern Ireland, where the fees were never introduced in the first place).

Few people who take a case to ET return to that employer, even fewer successfully raise a claim and stay employed there. Conversely, the costs of recruiting and training someone new are enormous – the 2015 CIPD/Hay Resource & Management Planning Survey indicates that recruitment costs alone can be up to £10,000, not including training and development.  Compare that to the costs associated with resolving a problem so a member of staff can remain a member of staff.

At the same time, of the unfair dismissal cases that were upheld, the median award was £6,955, a drop in the ocean compared to the legal costs, operational disruption and emotional upheaval involved in a Tribunal – most often, there are no winners.

Far better would be to find a mutually acceptable solution – whether through mediation, developing managers or by introducing more effective processes, or a combination of all three. Invest a little in mechanisms to avoid the ultimate employer/employee conflict, and potentially boost morale and productivity into the bargain, or pay the costs – the choice is yours.