Workplace Mediation -- Unresolved Issues Can Become Explosive

So many of the people we meet in our mediation business have -- as a primary duty -- the job of managing and resolving open employee complaints. Their main goal is to understand the grievances and explore solutions that offer the greatest degree of mutual satisfaction. The idea is that resolved complaints allow the participants to move on with the more urgent business of business.

Resolving workplace issues is an admirable objective. It is hard to argue against problem solving regardless of who you are: employee relations professional, union representative, individual employee, manager or attorney.

So, with all that desire and focus why is it that employee issues linger, fester, lose their urgency and then, to the dismay of those observing, suddenly become explosive?

Organizations (small and large) are burdened with policies, procedures and personalities that, despite all good intentions, wreak havoc on timely fixes to employee concerns. Increasingly a number of situations are pending for months and years because they are tangled up in maneuvering. Unresolved issues drive up costs, require additional time commitments and create workplace hostility.

The most consistent feedback I receive from those labor or corporate organizations that use our services is that speed, open-mindedness, and speed (did I already mention speed?) rank high as two attributes desired by employees in their workplaces. This is true in survey after survey and research paper after research paper.

Mediation is an approach to workplace resolution that is quicker and less costly than traditional internal and legal processes. Mediation works in an atmosphere that is less adversarial and often more productive than other proceedings. And more and more organizations (particularly larger operations) are including mediation in their handbooks and labor agreements - not only as an option but also as a mandatory early step in the complaint process.

When we take an honest assessment of the turn-around time and costs of current complaint processes (both formal and informal) and see delays of six months or longer, hefty attorney fees, and regular outside agency intervention, then we shouldn't kid ourselves - these distractions matter. They do not go away. They do not get buried in administrative time capsules. They fester and they cause friction and distrust.

Solve them. Fairly. Quickly.

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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 -- Unions Get Their First One Going

My guess would be (I don't keep hard statistics on this) that about half of the local unions I speak with tell me they cannot get buy-in from their executive boards to try mediating grievances. About a quarter of the inquiries I receive say 'yes' to mediation based upon positive, previous experiences. The final 25% also say 'yes.' But it is the first time the local has gone to mediation for grievances and, understandably, there remains some apprehension and skepticism. Testing the value of mediation involves thinking out of the box with workplace issues and requires a desire to resolve disagreements.

Curious union officials often find that mediation can evolve into a viable option for their members - an option that decreases both local union costs and executive/steward time commitments. And mediation is a method that members appreciate because it assures a speedier, more thorough and creative review of their personal concern.

A couple of facets of mediation vis-a-vis collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are worth noting, however.

The grievance and arbitration procedures in a CBA are critically important and must not be dismissed or circumvented. However, these procedures may be complemented by mediation, without risk. Mediation is non-binding and confidential. Mediation works when both parties agree to a solution and commit that solution to writing, for the record. Nothing unusual here. Find a solution, use it, move on. In theory the various steps in a grievance procedure are for the exploration of a resolution. Unfortunately, however, relationships are tainted with bad history, old agendas and with stubborn points of view that disallow clear thinking.

Mediation is not a hearing. The mediator does not analyze the strengths of one party's case over another. The mediator does not render a decision. The mediator does not have a client. And the mediator will not pass judgement on the merits of a grievance. The mediator does, however, act as a guide to explore all options, surface all areas of commonality, and assure everyone's interests are explored. Mediation is the facilitation of all points of view for everyone to consider and acknowledge.

Preparation for mediation is important and all vested individuals should be made aware beforehand of the process that will take place. There is little worse than surprising an e-board, or a manager, or an attorney, or an international/staff rep, or a grievant that "something new" has been inserted into the conversation. Experienced workplace mediators know these potential communications failures yield trouble and will assure that these situations are avoided.

Finally, neither the union nor the company representatives are bound to mediation in the future. However, I find most return to the process. And many return with their most challenging, ageless disagreements in hopes of resolution -  the revived hopes that seem to have disappeared before within the limitations of history, the grievance steps, and arbitration.

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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 -- 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 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.

Failure Isn't Fatal -- Hesitation Is

Failure isn't fatal in a workplace mediation. But hesitation can be.

In a recent discussion with a new client about workplace mediation I was struck by what she had to say. She is an officer of a 30 employee organization and a member of their senior executive team. I am paraphrasing what she said a bit, but I am very close to her exact points, if not word for word.

 "We have been kidding ourselves by counting unresolved employment issues as a win for the company. Our apparent age-old strategy of kicking the grievance-can down the road has had measurable negative effects on the relationship between our employees, our customers, and our investors. We can see it, feel it, and are learning how to measure that dismay."

"The fast, fair, uncomplicated resolution of any kind of business problem minimizes the unproductive energy spent chewing on emotions or bemoaning an apparent disregard for employee concerns."

Great insight. She didn't have to sell me on her ideas. Many company policies and guidelines have been in place for decades. And they have taken on an almost religious life of their own.

"Shedding old policy history and designing a suitable, responsive approach to employee concerns is not hard. It is not costly. It is the right thing to do."

Did I mention that she has been with her company only 10 days?

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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.