COLIN STEWART ROBERTSON   MBA – MRICS – MCIArb                                                                                WORKPLACE DISCUSSION PAPER

    Accredited Mediator                                                     

Leeds              North Yorkshire                     West Yorkshire          North of England                   UK & Beyond                       




This is a thought that can prevail in many businesses or organisations everywhere and it is completely understandable that they may wish to try to settle these matters in house.


How do workplace disputes start and why do they escalate?


The origins of workplace disputes may be many and varied but they generally have a common theme in the change of one or more of the parties’ behaviour that isn’t understood, received well or appreciated by the other party(ies). Often a party will comment that they were, initially, very good friends with the other party until the occurrence of a specific event.


Disputes generally escalate because a negative reaction to the original behavioural change is taken badly. Neither of the parties often understand, nor appreciate, what has happened and retreat into their bunkers. Further, support, or perceived support, by colleagues of either party can reinforce views that the other party is mounting a vendetta. Once other colleagues detect what is going on they can often stay clear of one or more of the parties so as to not to get involved or be asked to comment on the other party.


This then can lead to a feeling of isolation by one of the parties who can then begin to worry about going to work. This in turn can escalate into stress and time off work, which essentially makes things worse.


So why can’t we simply ‘sit around a table’ with a Line Manager or HR person to sort this out?


1.   There is no structure to such a meeting other than a re-run of what has happened and the expectation that the parties will be receptive enough to find a resolution to a long running dispute.


2.   Those running the meeting are part of, or support, the management of the parties. Therefore, right or wrong, anything said in the meeting will be ‘perceived’ as eventually making its way into the employees’ records. Parties can, therefore, be reluctant to discuss relevant details of which the management or HR may not be aware.


3.   Either, of the parties may perceive that their management or Line Manager have not handled their problem well, so far, and believe that they indeed may be part of, or have contributed to, its escalation.


4.   The Meeting Room. Invariably, a private room within the business or organisation’s premises, but often an offshoot of an open plan office. Access to and from the room will sometimes mean the parties having to run the gauntlet of the gaze/speculation of colleagues or the administration office in larger organisations. The meeting, by its very nature, could lack balance and the more vocal or dominant party can use the meeting to score more hits, leading to more regrettable conversations and the inevitable break-up of the meeting.


5.   Sometimes, the parties have the answer to their dispute without being fully aware of this and need the controlled discipline to focus on what has happened, why and how they would like things to change. Essentially, to extract the relevant issues and a possible compromise on what means most to them. Without the correct structure and professional control a meeting is unlikely to lead to the parties’ own measurable resolution.


Why is it necessary to have someone totally unconnected with the business or organisation to sort our internal problems?


1.   For the very reason stated in the first part of the question. A good Mediator is totally impartial, fair and balanced in their approach, as well as putting the parties at ease. Above all a good Mediator listens. The Mediator should be prepared to ask searching questions based upon what the parties wish to discuss and for this to be in complete confidentiality. Nothing discussed between each party should be related back to management, HR (without that party’s strictest consent) or the other party, under any circumstances.


2.   The follow up drafting of a short opening statement by each party (to start the Joint Meeting) and subsequently reviewed by the Mediator, concentrates the parties’ minds on what has been discussed over the previous interview.


3.   Only if the parties incorporate previously confidential information in their opening statements or in the Joint Meeting discussions can the Mediator bring them into that meeting. Essentially, the parties are not discussing private feelings/events to a person who will then relate this back to management, HR or office colleagues.


4.   Guided by a good Mediator, the parties are in control and, if they agree, may consent to the drafting of an informal agreement, with the aid of the Mediator. Parties often agree to a copy of this agreement being forwarded to management or HR, in the knowledge that they have control of what they want to be related. Each party should receive their own copy immediately on signing (in the case of f2f) or, as soon as possible, in the case of online.




The purpose of this paper is to prompt discussion and acknowledge the very difficult job encountered by today’s business leaders, managers and their HR support teams in facing the conflicts of trying to be employer, motivator, peacemaker and, sometimes, disciplinarian. All this within a legal framework.


The author’s experience draws heavily upon what parties ‘perceive’ about one another’s actions and motives. Even if the line management isn’t directly involved in the dispute then there is often a ‘perception’ by one party that their grievance hasn’t been taken seriously or that the other party(ies) has received preferential consideration. This makes trying to settle disputes, in house, extremely difficult.


Colin Stewart Robertson – Accredited Mediator

The author has been involved in conflict resolution and negotiation for over 45 years; an involvement in mediation for 20 years and an Accredited Mediator since 2012. If you wish to discuss your own workplace dispute then see for further details.


© Colin Stewart Robertson 2009 - 2023

(Last updated 17 January 2023)