Workplace Mediation -- Just Cutting Deals?

For the first time ever, a rather contentious twosome inquired about mediation. After years of bad blood, they had decided to explore mediation as a means of improving their head-banging relationship. And they wanted to discuss a series of old differences to see if they could resolve them.

The participants were a union business manager and her counterpart in the labor relations department. We held a conference call and I encouraged them just to chat. It seemed, however, that they were not ready to give up their carefully chosen, cautious words -- just in case their good intentions fell apart.

Importantly, their key hesitation surfaced. They were concerned about "internal political correctness." Both were worried that they would return after mediation to their respective constituencies appearing to have cut deals for expediency's sake. I assured them that mediation would arm them with an array of reasons for each decision they made, and that they would be able to persuade others by discussing mutual goals, the alternatives, the chosen options, and why those options benefited all.

We spent an hour that day discussing the advantages of mediation over litigation, outlining the logistics and timing involved, and reviewing how both parties would remain in control of their decisions. I pointed out that they would gain a better understanding of how to answer future employee complaints. We discussed that they would not be turning their points of view over to me for evaluation. Instead, they would be exploring the linkage between stated goals and brainstormed solutions and deciding for themselves what was best.

They asked for guidance on how to approach any settlements. Their mediation agreements needed to reflect various organizational concerns. "With precedent, or without? With prejudice, or without?" They greatly appreciated the fact that they did not have to commit to binding language during mediation unless doing so was their preference.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of preparation. Preparation is indispensable, and should not be casually approached. 

Prep does not need to be tedious. However, it does need to be inclusive. Affected employees and impacted managers must be advised of a mediation in advance, shown its ideal outcome(s), and given an explanation of why the established resolution procedure is now being enhanced. My personal experience indicates that careful preparation greatly reduces the perception of deal making.

A thorough mediator not only offers "day of" services but also early guidance. And a mediator's duty includes setting expectations and putting to rest understandable fears -- such as "deal cutting."


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.