Why are so many businesses still dragging their heals about using mediation to resolve workplace disputes? CEO’s, Human Resource Directors, Managers and Business Owners all know that ignoring workplace conflicts can only keep matters at bay for so long; when the dam breaks, union grievances, animosities within and across teams, and expensive lawsuits result. For decades now, and especially in the past ten years, mediation has been used successfully in small, medium and large companies nationwide to resolve a wide array of disputes at very little cost to the business. So why aren’t more companies either contracting with outside mediators or implementing their own internal programs? The answer is a combination of both simple and complex factors:
According to the Justice Department, employment discrimination cases nearly tripled between the beginning and the end of the 1990’s. These cases involve claims of sexual harassment, racial bias, hostile work environment, wrongful termination, ADA violations, etc., etc. And yet, as the U.S. Postal Service discovered in the first 22 months of full operation of its “Redress” mediation program, from September 1998 through June 2000, 17,645 disputes were mediated and of those, 80 percent were resolved. During the same period, formal complaints dropped 30 percent and lawyers estimated that the program saved the agency millions of dollars. Ms. Cynthia J. Hallberlin, former chief counsel for the Postal Service stated: “We have found that companies are very interested in transformative mediation…because of its promise to not just solve the problem at hand, but to help the parties communicate more effectively in the future.” [NYTimes – business section, Sept. 6, 2000]
Transformative Mediation describes a particular orientation practiced by mediators who believe that small steps count in improving communication between parties, particularly when they will continue working together in some fashion. Mediators using the transformative approach are trained to work with parties toward resolutions which encompass the issues which are important to the disputants themselves, and in the process, to help strengthen their relationship so that it can withstand conflicts or differences in the future. The Postal Service chose to contract exclusively with mediators trained in the transformative approach, believing that, over time, these mediations would contribute to improving the overall workplace culture of the Postal Service.
While the Postal Service, the largest single employer in the U.S., developed a nationwide program using outside, contract mediators, many other large companies and organizations have created internal dispute resolution programs. A survey of Fortune 1,000 companies by the Cornell Institute on Conflict Resolution found that the majority have developed some form of what is known as ADR, (alternative dispute resolution) to avoid litigation.
Texaco’s settlement of a multimillion-dollar racial discrimination case included the creation of an Ombuds Program in February 1998; which later became part of a company-wide problem-resolution system, along with other mediation and arbitration programs. There are at least 22 workplace ombuds offices in 10 different federal agencies in the U.S. Federal ombuds offices deal with a wide range of workplace issues, including providing third party assistance (mediators) to resolve disputes between individuals as well as within work groups.
Smaller businesses have also discovered how cost effective mediation can be in resolving disputes which interfere with productivity or negatively effect employee morale. Even “mom & pop” type businesses have used mediation processes to keep owner-partnerships from dissolving, to help retain valued managers and to implement change and modernize systems without loosing the “heart” of their businesses due to employee conflicts.
The advantages for businesses in adopting mediation processes, either through outside contracts or internal programs, are multifaceted and immeasurable. The problem remains: how to dispel the myths, support attitudinal changes, and generally promote more openness among business people to using mediation services and implementing mediation programs.