How can HR managers resolve workplace conflict without creating a conflict of interest? Bianca Keys of the Mediator Standards Board shares her insights with HRD.

Conflict is a natural – some might even say an inevitable and essential – part of the workplace. But the means by which that conflict is resolved plays a significant part in its long-term impact on the workplace, whether positive or negative. Accordingly, third party mediation is emerging as an increasingly popular option for businesses who are looking to resolve inter-office conflict without creating a conflict of interest in the process.

Bianca Keys, chairperson of Mediator Standards Board, sees conflict as a springboard to a better workplace culture, and is eager to break down preconceptions that employees and employers may have about the mediation process.

“Some employees have reservations about formal mediation in the workplace,” says Keys. “They might be concerned about how participating reflects on their employment record, or simply have reservations about openly sharing their concerns with a company representative. But having someone truly independent involved in the process tends to allay a lot of these worries.”

What HR can do particularly effectively, notes Keys, is manage people’s expectations about any conflict resolution process. Normalising mediation as part of a workplace toolkit for conflict resolution – as opposed to something that’s only utilised under extreme circumstances – is also critical for its success.

“Where possible, it should be proactive, rather than reactive,” explains Keys. “Mediation can be utilised at any point during a conflict, but mediators tend to find that it yields greater gains when it’s introduced at an earlier stage.”

For businesses who are looking to work with mediators for the first time, Keys cautions that working with properly accredited providers is essential. Given that the scale of workplace conflict can range from low level interpersonal disagreement all the way to borderline legal disputes, it’s crucial to engage a provider who is effectively trained and equipped to deal with a diverse range of situations, operates within a set of ethical standards, and is covered by an appropriate complaints handling process and professional indemnity insurance.

“Australia doesn’t have any legislated requirements for mediators, so anyone can call themself a mediator. In response to this, the Mediator Standards Board was developed to oversee the National Mediator Accreditation System (NMAS),” says Keys. “We want to ensure that mediators meet benchmark training and experience requirements, and that companies utilising their services have the ability to register concerns, if necessary. So, ensuring that you’re working with a provider who’s accredited with NMAS acts as a measure of quality control.”

Quality control is a crucial consideration for HR when engaging a mediator, Keys notes, because there are often incredible sensitivities within any given workplace and the escalation of hostilities will almost inevitably trigger other underlying issues among staff. An accredited mediator will work with the individuals involved before the mediation – so that the mediator understands these sensitivities and can assess suitability of mediation, and can help people prepare for a constructive conversation. Using a NMAS accredited mediator is one way to ensure this best practice will be applied in your process.

“Being in conflict doesn’t mean an employee is a bad person – it means that they’re in a bad situation,” explains Keys. “That’s a sensitive place to be, and if it’s handled poorly at any stage, you can end up losing good employees as a result.”

While an increasing number of HR specialists are undertaking mediation training, Keys believes that accredited third-party providers will always have an important role to play when dealing with employees. HR specialists can provide exceptional support for the mediation process and assist in the selection of a mediator, while a NMAS accredited mediator brings a level of independence that enables open dialogue and confidentiality. Both are important for good mediation.

“When it comes to workplace conflict, I believe that people have their own stories – and they’re important stories,” says Keys. “Employees should be able to write their own endings, and an independent, accredited mediator can enable that process.”

The Mediator Standards Board are the peak body for professional mediators across Australia. To find out more about the accreditation system or to check if your mediator is NMAS accredited, head to the MSB website –

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Published on 17 Jun, 2020