Workplace Mediation -- The New Normal?

The voicemail came from a labor relations manager who told me that he was calling on behalf of both his company and a local union that he negotiates with every three years. The two parties were beginning to schedule their first days of talks and were starting to outline the subjects they plan to negotiate.

"We both want to explore adding mediation into our grievance and arbitration article. We are not quite sure where to start. Since this is your area of expertise do you have any ideas?"

This was a call to assist with moving labor and management into the future. It was not a call to mediate, although I suppose it could have been viewed that way. The request struck me as an opportunity to help -- not to help my business grow, not to help the parties resolve a disagreement, but to improve a working relationship at the macro level.

I have developed draft mediation language into collective bargaining agreements before -- language that establishes mediation either as an option, or as a requirement. While only a few people are doing this, it is a growing number.

I have agreed to offer my free time to listen to the hopes and concerns of these two dependent groups. Union leadership and the employee relations pros will write the language. I won't. But I love the idea of "flip charting" their intentions, exploring their common ground, determining their mutual interests, and sharing the details of how to mediate a grievance before it collapses into a long, costly, and unnecessary battle.

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Thornton Mason is a national dispute resolution consultant and human relations mediator with 25 years of experience resolving over 1200 employee matters. His 60 Second Updates have a current reach of over 750,000 readers. He and Mediation Resolves focus on eliminating formal employee complaints, avoiding internal relationship disputes, preventing grievance backlogs, and restarting stalled labor negotiations.

Workplace Mediation -- Preparation Is A Bit Tricky

Being a prepared participant for mediation is not difficult -- but the failure to be prepared can drag your voice and the voice of others right down the rabbit hole.

A common misconception:

"We know the issue so well, and have been over it so many times, that there just isn't anything to prepare."

While there is truth in the fact that participants know their issue well (and know the parties various historic stances) it is not true that you needn't prepare. Our workplace mediations always begin with the parties defining the issue and writing a statement that best describes it. Easy? Nope. Often participants discover that much of what they believe an issue to be about is not shared by their team mates or by the other parties.

We strongly recommend that each party meet separately beforehand and outline the problem, as they see it. And that they write the problem in a statement form. Don't attempt the solution, leave out your desired outcomes -- just state the problem. Even amongst those participants on "one side of the issue" you will find varying points of view about what the concern is.

Arriving at the mediation with your team's written problem statement benefits you tremendously. It solidifies how you and your party view the purpose of the mediation.

Next, the mediator matches up your problem statement with that of the other party or parties. Having a mutually agreed upon problem statement gets the mediation on the right track quickly and with efficiency. And it narrows the scope of the discussions to assure productive outcomes.

I have seen a great deal of the contention between parties melt away during this "problem statement" part of the meeting. "You mean we don't disagree about this?" It happens.

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Thornton Mason is a national dispute resolution consultant and human relations mediator with 25 years of experience resolving over 1200 employee matters. His 60 Second Updates have a current reach of over 750,000 readers. He and Mediation Resolves focus on eliminating formal employee complaints, avoiding internal relationship disputes, preventing grievance backlogs, and restarting stalled labor negotiations.

Workplace Mediation -- It Needs An Agenda

Actually, all mediations need an agenda. Not a national policy agenda to advocate the use of mediation. Not the type of personal agenda that some participants arrive with to bang about the other party. But rather a simple meeting agenda.

The meeting agenda is a tool too often overlooked by those scheduling a mediation.

Mediation works best when there is a structured approach to the meeting (not to the flow of conversation but to the hours of the day). Before the meeting begins the parties should receive an agenda from the mediator. This helps set expectations and serves to reduce participant apprehension about "how the mediation thing" works.

  • The agenda outlines the issue. This gives focus to solving only the problem at hand - and helps avoid all the noise and unrelated baggage that is often attendant in disputes. It discourages wandering.

  • The agenda outlines the steps that the participants are taken through by the mediator - such as writing a succinct statement of the problem, exploring common interests and brainstorming old and new options.

  • The agenda states time limits for each stage of the discussion. This assures forward progress. Time limits help deter the group from repetition. When participants know that one part of the discussion is to begin and end within a set timeframe they can rest assured that they are not going to linger endlessly.

Please note that a structured approach to problem solving with the use of an agenda does not lead to manipulated discussions or premature endings. The frank, creative sharing of concerns and ideas is never displaced in the interest of timing. And it is the mediator's job to assure this. But the agenda, its use of specificity and timed mileposts, is crucial to achieving forward momentum and mutual solutions.

A mediation without an agenda risks leading to a mediation without a conclusion.

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Thornton Mason is a national dispute resolution consultant and human relations mediator with 25 years of experience resolving over 1200 employee matters. His 60 Second Updates have a current reach of over 750,000 readers. He and Mediation Resolves focus on eliminating formal employee complaints, avoiding internal relationship disputes, preventing grievance backlogs, and restarting stalled labor negotiations.

Workplace Mediation -- Steve Jobs Liked It, He Just Might Not Have Known It

So much has been written about Steve Jobs that it is hard to find the time to read it all. And soon a second full length movie about his life will hit the theaters. No doubt, the focus of this bio-pic will be on his eccentricities and abrasive behavior.

When you look past all of his drama, though, you find that Jobs promoted workplace mediation. Even for his executive team. And he was surprisingly supportive of conflict resolution - particularly speedy conflict resolution. What did Jobs teach us about workplace mediation?

Collaboration Works: Jobs was successful. Extremely successful. Part of his game changing style was his collaborative approach. I know this might be hard to believe at times. After all, he could fire and rehire someone within minutes. However he held in high regard the notion of consensus -- and consensus requires collaboration. He worked with others for the common good, even when that included working around those he viewed as frustrating personalities. Collaboration is certainly a driving force in workplace mediation -- participants work together to solve the unsolvable in an atmosphere of cooperation.

Problem Solving Is Essential: Jobs encouraged ideas, creative thinking and measured approaches to problem solving. Every one was expected to participate, every one was involved. Workplace mediation establishes an atmosphere where all the participants join in, are allowed to be creative, and are encouraged to give and thus to gain. Successful mediation does not dismiss anyone or any one idea. It creates a problem solving potential that allows people to use their fullest powers along lines of excellence.

Speed Makes A Difference: I don't believe that I have ever heard Steve Jobs was a patient man. He kept the behemoth moving forward, never hesitating, never stopping, never retreating. Conversely, employee dissatisfaction at work is an unnecessary distraction. By not resolving this distraction in a timely manner you unwittingly create annoyance. And annoyance extracts huge amounts of energy and commitment from employees. Things slow down. Jobs knew that responsible parties must get to their conclusion quickly, resolving the issue, and moving on to do the next bit of vital work. Mediation in the workplace accelerates closure. Very often mediation gets you same day, constructive answers, with commitments to bring an employee complaint to an end, now.

Steve Jobs defied any definitive description. He did, though, seek collaboration to solve the problems that surrounded him -- even the most minute ones. He demanded that persistent, forward movement be a measurable business objective. And these very same characteristics that Jobs exhibited are the reasons that mediating workplace issues is so successful.

I believe Jobs liked workplace mediation, even if he never quite got around to saying so.

Or did he? I still haven't read a third of what has been written about him.

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Thornton Mason is a national dispute resolution consultant and human relations mediator with 25 years of experience resolving over 1200 employee matters. His 60 Second Updates have a current reach of over 750,000 readers. He and Mediation Resolves focus on eliminating formal employee complaints, avoiding internal relationship disputes, preventing grievance backlogs, and restarting stalled labor negotiations.