Conflicts will arise among school staff. This is regrettable but inevitable and mediation can be a useful way of resolving such disputes. Although mediation cannot be used if a claim has been made, or could be made, to an employment tribunal, early intervention can lead to positive outcomes without resorting to formal legal processes.
Mediation can help mend workplace relationships when informal discussions have not been able to solve a problem.
If the dispute does not involve a school leader it is likely SLT staff will want to step in to resolve the matter. This may expedite matters but also runs the risk of making the SLT member part of the disagreement. I know from personal experience during my early days of leadership that no matter how well intentioned an intervention, it is easy to become part of the problem you are trying to solve. An aggrieved member of staff will be upset, may be confused in the face of conflicting advice and may not be best able to judge their own circumstances. At such times it is easy for a grievance to escalate when the best option is a resolution.
Disputes may be about a member of the SLT, so the Head may seek a resolution and this also carries risks. If the aggrieved member of staff is not happy with the way the Head conducts matters then the issue will need to be reviewed at board level. Such a development is entirely appropriate given the status of the Head but is unlikely to be helpful in getting to a conclusion.
Having acted as an intermediary I know that this can improve communication, avoid escalation and allow both sides to have sense of control, thereby helping to find a solution that everyone agrees with. If successful this intervention will reduce stress, save time and avoid legal costs. As an experienced mediator I can help both sides to acknowledge the other’s views, commit to necessary changes in behaviour and avoid any intensification of a problem. I am also very aware of the problems and pitfalls facing a Head in such situations.
Third party involvement is particularly helpful in matters including harassment, communication issues, cashes of personality, bullying and when relationships break down.
For a confidential conversation about mediation please use the contact page or the chat button.
There may be a time when a school wants to talk with an aggrieved employee while a legal process has been instigated or is taking place. There are also times when a school leader wants to talk to a staff member about a very significant matters when there is no existing dispute. Schools can do so though the means of a protected conversation but doing so without experience and guidance can carry risks.
In 2013 section 111A was added to the Employment Rights Act 1996 stating that the existence and content of protected conversations were not to be disclosed in an employment tribunal. Such pre termination negotiations enables an employer (or their representative) to talk to an employee off the record and on a confidential basis without the details of that conversation becoming admissible in any subsequent legal proceedings, such as a claim in an Employment Tribunal.
Employees can feel they are taken by surprise by a school requesting a protected conversation to discuss a grievance or the termination of employment. They may feel confused, worried about their future and be uninformed of their legal rights. In such circumstances a third party can help to broker a solution.
Schools can benefit from arranging a protected conversation at the start of disciplinary or capability procedures. This may result in avoiding lengthy proceedings designed to terminate the employee’s contract and can quickly reach the desired outcome. For example, a protected conversation allows a school to offer a member of staff money to leave without any attached risk.
Schools staff faced with the need for such a conversation may not be familiar or experienced in the appropriate and best practice essential for a successful event. The conversation itself needs to be carefully handled and properly structured. Those in school already involved in the matters being discussed could be accused of improper behaviour. This can include leaving the employee feeling they have been put under pressure or given the impression that refusing an offer will result in dismissal. There is a very fine line between encouraging a settlement offer and an accusation of improper behaviour.
For a confidential conversation about protected conversations please use the contact page or the chat button.
Having mediated many staff bullying grievances, been bullied by a deputy when a young teacher and been accused of bullying as a Head and then exonerated after an exhaustive enquiry I have gained a good deal of experience in this sensitive, volatile and damaging problem in schools. It is a horrible experience for all involved. Perhaps because school teachers are hard-wired into stopping peer-on-peer bullying we react quickly and feel things deeply when we are bullied or are accused of it. No matter the reason, bullying or the feeling of being bullied, even if no harm was intended, is upsetting, damaging and disruptive.
Schools have anti bullying polices for children but not always ones that cover staff bullying staff. Too often allegations are dealt with through the school’s grievance procedures but these can prove cumbersome, unsatisfactory and in some cases make matters worse. When a teacher feels bullied by a colleague their priority is normally for it to be stopped and reassurances put in place that it will not happen again. The accused should have a right to explain their actions and the school must decide if further action needs to be taken. In my experience, most parties want the process to happen quickly, quietly and without publicity. However, bullying allegations are not always easily resolved and may form part of a tribunal claim and become public. There is also the danger that the processes put in place to investigate and resolve the matter can feel burdensome to the person raising the issue when they are feeling at their most vulnerable.
An additional consideration is that an allegation of bullying may become part of a larger claim of whistleblowing. In other words, claiming there is a culture of bullying and not just an isolated case. Such an accusation is likely to be made against the Head or members of the SLT. Legal advice is essential should this be the case and the matters must be handled sensitively but also robustly and proportionately. These matters have the potential to damage the school's reputation, take up a great deal of management time and involve both legal costs and litigation risk.
In adition to legal guidance, governors, Heads and leadership teams may benefit from support and advice from somebody who has experienced such things first hand. Hopefully handling a bullying allegation will be rare occurrences but the disadvantage of it being rare is that those handling it may not be experienced in reaching a positive resolution.
In dealing with peer-on-peer staff bullying issues, I am familiar with the mediation skills and effective, workable policies and processes required to reach a positive outcome. As a Head accused of bullying, I have insight into the complexities of managing such a sensitive a potentially incendiary situation. Finally, as a victim of bullying I have compassion for and empathy with anyone put in such a challenging and worrying position.
For a confidential conversation about support at a time of alleged workplace bullying please use the contact page or the chat button.
Supporting staff through tribunals
School leadership teams are increasingly exposed to the problems of tribunals and this can be highly stressful. Specialist school lawyers handle the legal aspect of employment tribunals and their advice is essential. Staff may be called as witnesses and find themselves in an unusual and very challenging environment. Press involvement in tribunals means that reported actions, allegations made and evidence given can all form part of news stories. Reporting is not always accurate and stories may be sensationalised to attract readers. Staff can find themselves in difficult to handle situations and the process tends to be stressful. Lawyers should advise on all parts of the actual tribunal, schools with the necessary funding may recruit media advisers and PR consultants to help with the media but staff involved are sometimes without support. This may leave staff feeling isolated and even anxious.
School can help their staff by providing care and guidance before, during and after appearing at a tribunal or giving evidence in any other legal process.
For a confidential conversation about supporting staff before, during or after a tribunal please use the contact page or the chat button.