Human Services: Mediation

Conduct a reflection for an organization


Mediation-related work is an essential function at many organizations, from human resource professionals handling disputes and making strategic plans at a company, university, or non-profit, to foreign services agents or field officers working for the federal government. The tasks and topics related to diplomacy and mediation include building relationships and resolving conflicts to reach mutually agreeable outcomes. Depending on the scope and scenario, you are positioned to use your best judgment, communication skills, and interpersonal competencies to achieve successful mediation.

Mediation in a corporate environment is often executed in the Human Resource (HR) functions. Professionals who work in HR solve business issues by solving people issues. For established organizations, the HR unit consists of area experts, generalists, and business partners.

Business partners often deal with issues related to employee-manager relationships in organizations, which require observation and mediation, and if possible, on-time interventions. The ultimate goal is to create the best environment for best performances. In this regard, the role of the business partner is analogous to an orchestra leader, where one would be assigned to a team of performers with specialties to offer. The business partner ought to know how to leverage the expertise and avoid conflict before delivering the decision to leadership. Hence, mediation in an organization often takes place in a group setting. Depending on the task at hand, one or more individuals with HR background may be invited to contribute to different aspects of the issue.

Mediation, therefore, can be approached by HR professionals proactively or reactively. For instance, a proactive mediation process happens when a leadership team needs to set a new incentive program for all employees. Involving a business partner from the beginning allows the business partner to provide human resource-based perspectives to champion the leadership from strategy to implementation. Namely, the business partner would spend time in meetings and discussions to help balance different opinions, address potential conflicts or adversarial perceptions, and move the task forward.

With the organization’s interests at heart, the mediation processes and tasks facing HR professionals often require business partners to consider all employees. For business partners who are assigned to specific projects, depending on the size of the organization and the seniority of the individuals, the intended audience is usually the leadership team in which they are embedded.

The Process

  1. Organize inquiries of the current practice with the team by preparing analysis and scheduling meetings; 
  2. Conduct reflective exercises (e.g., “start-stop-continue”) with the unit leaders and document conversations on changes to make;
  3. Summarize changes proposed and share key content with the HR functions involved in the new WFH policy setup, including possible implications for benefits, finance, and data analytics HR members;
  4. Serve as a liaison between the leadership team’s desired changes and input from HR functional experts, working to align the proposed plan with legal considerations and company policies; 
  5. Prepare informal meetings with organizational leaders, such as the chief officers in HR, finance, general counsel, and executives; 
  6. Finalize and package the new plan for final approval; 
  7. Prepare a formal announcement and individual information sheets for the team leaders [to communicate and support the message] to their direct supervisees. For this step, you will work with the communications team.

The Exercise

For this job sim, you are a business partner for an organization discussing post-pandemic work-from-home (WFH) policies. Due to the unusual circumstances of 2020 and positive news of available vaccines, your organization is revisiting pre-pandemic policies as well as considering allowing employees to continue working from home in some capacity. Mediation will be required to bring your stakeholders (employees, managers, and leadership) and their interests in this process together to build a new, well-structured plan. 

This process involves understanding the WFH practice, including the opportunities and challenges for individuals and the organization. Managers hope to make data-informed decisions based on 2020 individual and business performance and get executives and human resources’ support and approval to set the new policy in place. 

Given the fact that the new WFH policy may bring change to current practice, misunderstanding or a lack of buy-in can emerge between the decision makers (executives and middle managers) and the employees. It is important to make sure the new policy promotes employees’ motivation, while promoting the organization’s performance and growth in the next year. 

The role of a business partner is to get all parties on the same page and clearly communicate the final plan to each employee and guide individuals whose careers and lives are greatly impacted by this new policy.

Task 1: Identify the factors important to employees and stakeholders of your team.

Before an initial meeting with the unit leaders, you need to assess your internal environment by talking to internal stakeholders. WFH was an inevitable choice last year due to the spread of the virus, and many employees have become used to this mode of business. However, when it is possible for people to gather again, people may feel differently about going back to the office. 

  1. What personal factors or demographics may impact someone’s preference of WFH?
  2. What are ways does your organization collect data on the demographics and individual preferences?

As you complete these tasks, consider the consequences for different demographic groups from a diversity-equity-inclusion lens.

Task 2: Conduct a “start-stop-continue” retrospective exercise with unit leaders.

Typically, in this role, the business partner leads the meeting and invites all participants to brainstorm and populate three areas to start, stop, and continue. This retrospective exercise takes stock of member input and categorizes suggestions into: 

  • start (what the team will begin to do in the next cycle); 
  • stop (identify practices that didn’t work from the previous cycle and bring to closure); 
  • continue (carry on with the activities that worked well in the previous cycle). 

View a “start-stop-continue” resource and create your own layout with all unit leaders in the scenario below. Your role as the Business Partner is also to create opportunities for different voices to be heard and reach consensus along the way. 

If you are doing this task as a group exercise, one or two individuals will assume the role of business partners: one person may lead the exercise, while the other person takes group notes and observes team dynamics for reflection. The rest of the group will engage in this exercise as unit leaders. You will take the WFH perspective of three people and consider what’s best for them and the organization’s interest. 

If you are doing this exercise by yourself, try to wear different hats and generate perspectives from different employee backgrounds. Consider the demographic information you may have found for the organization and select samples from diverse perspectives. Examples could be: 

  • a single mom who is part-time and from a historically marginalized racial background;
  • a mid-career employee with 20 years of experience in the field;
  • a young and enthusiastic employee who just joined the organization during the pandemic; and
  • a person with deep skill and institutional knowledge approaching retirement.

Task 3: Identify areas to take action.

Normally, in this role, the business partner would lead the group in identifying common themes and vote on the key areas on which the team desires to take action. For the purpose of this job sim, identify areas based on the information you generated in the previous exercise.

If you had the role of a business partner in Task 2, summarize the key areas to start, stop, and continue in a succinct email you would send back to relevant team members. If you had the role of a unit leader, review the summary carefully and provide feedback on whether the email accurately reflected the conversation. As a group, your final objective is to reach an agreement and deliver the new WFH policy to your organization’s leadership for approval.

The Deliverable

For a successful mediation, there are always tangible and intangible deliverables. A business partner’s objective is to support the unit leaders through this process and provide HR guidance along the way. In the case of creating a new WFH policy, an optimal outcome is for the unit to generate a new plan that is based on an objective review of previous practice and is actionable and well-aligned with its direct employees’ interests and the organization’s needs.

In other words, the most tangible deliverable in this scenario, is a new WFH plan that provides guidance for the unit. Sometimes referred to as the “go/no-go” decision, the decision manifests as a document that needs signatures. Whether the changes involve a new policy and/or employee incentive plan, the value of the document will be dependent upon successful conversations within the team, with other functional units, and the receipt of final approvals from the executive team. Secondary deliverables may be updates to the employee handbook that outline the specific actions, considerations, implementation, and documentation needed to support this new policy.

Mediations also come with intangible deliverables in terms of relationship building and improved atmosphere and culture within the organization. If a new plan is successful, it should provide individual employees with certainty and clarity and greater likelihood of professional and personal success for those individuals and the organization. For an individual, the tangible deliverable also serves as a confirmation of individual value and how it is tied to the organization’s greater vision.

General Resources to Help You Get Going

Skills used in the Human Resources field to facilitate successful mediation

  • Adaptability: being agile and flexible to adapt to different teams and their styles and needs and to the tasks at hand; mediation is about the team/task versus the individual getting involved
  • Technical skills: knowledge about human resources that is the foundational knowledge and what is currently trending in the field
  •  Communication skills: being able to take a thought and convey it back succinctly and in simple terms
  • Consulting mentality: ability to engage in open conversations and have the ability to understand of issue at hand
  • Analytical skills: being able to gather facts and decide on what to do with the information in a personally unbiased fashion

Additional tasks in Human Service-oriented careers

  • Consulting with different units and providing HR guidance when needed
  • Managing and resolving complex interpersonal issues between employees and management
  • Leading effective and thorough reviews for various purposes
  • Sharing data on individual work internally with colleagues for documentation
  • Conducting administrative tasks, such as doing reviews on internal processes, giving permission to individuals who need access, or updating a document
  • Reading, researching, and creating presentations based on topics needed
  • Attending and facilitating meetings to build relationships with different teams

You are viewing a job simulation. To get started, set up SMART Goals to perform this simulation in a reasonable timeline. If you have completed the task, fill out the Self-Reflection Sheet.

Simulation author: Yi Hao, PhD at University of Virginia

Simulation vetted by veteran senior HR Business Partners in central Virginia