I am uncomfortable admitting this. But a sense of history and context are important in understanding the value of mediation in the workplace today. So here I go. My very own 'mea culpa.'
Early in my corporate employee relations days I was advised -- encouraged actually -- to allow active employee complaints and union grievances to remain open. "Don't worry about settling them if they are old and pending. After all, if you pursue them we might actually lose."
To the naive this reasoning seemed valid. Any unsettled complaint that one of our employees didn't actually pursue was a "win" for the company, by default.
I claimed that I understood this point of view and even adopted the unwritten philosophy as my own. After all, there was a strange and pragmatic logic to the idea -- you win unless you are dumb enough to try and resolve it. And in the case of my first bosses, the unsettled backlogs dove-tailed nicely with their strategy of making workplace complaint policies too uncomfortable for employees to consider -- forcing issues to die without settlement, sometimes dozens or more in a year. And creating grumpiness.
But the approach was, of course, convoluted.
The true cost of only grinning and winking at employees has an immeasurable and insidiously damaging effect. Winning and defiance are not the purpose of complaint handling. Assuring the other guy loses is not the way to earn employee respect, member commitment, loyalty, or a positive relationship with customers and the community. We know today that cooperatively finding workplace solutions is an underlying tenet for successful companies. The relationship with employees can be a game changing asset in business. It doesn't have to be an albatross.
Admittedly, I continue to get blistering responses to my point of view on settling backlogs of complaints. Pushback comes from corporate HR professionals, attorneys, and even from local union leaders and their national staff members. When I pursue trying to resolve aging complaints and grievances I still too often am told "Not here. Not us. You just don't understand how dangerous it is. We can't -- and we won't -- rewrite the rules in some mediation play."
Today we have the facts to disprove any shallow or caustic thinking about complaint handling. I do understand that difficult relationships, work environments, and histories exist. However, I have a growing list of times and places and people and organizations where tremendous, measurable, positive results have been achieved that are directly related to the resolution of old issues.
I'd even venture to say that joy has been experienced in mediating old grievances. I am convinced that it is worth the energy to try and find common ground and mutually beneficial solutions to workplace concerns.
And that is why I bother.
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 400,000 readers. He and Mediation Resolves focus on eliminating formal employee complaints, avoiding internal relationship disputes, preventing grievance backlogs, and restarting stalled labor negotiations.