Workplace Mediation -- A Last Resort?

I wasn't quite sure I liked being referred to as "a last resort." However, I was honored to be asked to conduct this mediation, last resort or not.

I received the call from a local union representative who quickly asked "Hey, aren't you that guy who does mediation on old grievances?" I answered that I guessed I was. How could I help?

"We have a ton of grievances filed on the same subject and the company and their lawyers have just been dragging this thing out now for over three years. I've got people who are being ripped off as a result and so you are my last resort." Hmmm.

I called the employer's representatives and they agreed to join in the mediation, although they expected failure because "the union just hasn't been reasonable."

Within four hours the participants had found their solution. And the agreement was acceptable to all parties, including their respective attorneys (who worked hard to set aside their combative instincts and find mutual interest).

This three and a half year old stalemate (with endless stalls scheduling arbitration) did have some common ground. And the common ground had been there all along - ironically noted in the record from three years earlier. But people had stubbornly assumed their positions, hunkered down and lost sight of reason. The tactics and strategies that ensued unfortunately became personal. Egos were not going to be bruised.

By finally taking a deep breath, relaxing and asking for neutral guidance, the participants rediscovered the core issues. They set aside their history of gaming each other and went to work.

Relationships are complex, often irrational and almost always emotional. So, full disclosure: workplace mediation doesn't claim to resolve the nature of our interactions. But experience has shown me that mediation can put rivalries on a course toward mutual gain.

Why do we wait so long to give mediation a chance? Is it because workplace mediation is relatively unknown as a viable option? Is it because we believe we are capable of eventually reaching resolution, regardless of how long, and of doing so without assistance? Or do we actually prefer the familiarity of stalled talks and the old chants of "they" just won't work with us? Is it because there are some people who gain more from disagreement than from agreement?

I would prefer to see mediation inserted into the grievance mix more permanently -- before lack of progress occurs on any given matter. And I'll continue to work on that. In the meantime, I take the successful experiences as they come, case by case. Even if I have to be known as the last resort.

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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 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.