CEO Adviser: Conflict Avoidance

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Businesses frequently use mediation to resolve employment disputes after a lawsuit has been filed, but a number of large local organizations believe they are better off using mediators to address workplace conflicts well before the lawyers have to be called in.

Boeing and King County are doing just that, and the advantages are plenty. By addressing workplace conflict early on, companies avoid significant costs from lost productivity, absenteeism and attrition, and also avoid the legal fees and frayed personal relationships that result when workplace conflict turns into litigation.

At Boeing, non-union employees may use in-house mediators to help resolve issues arising from compensation, corrective action decisions, violations of company policy, retaliation, privacy concerns, negligence claims and other types of claims through its Alternative Dispute Resolution program. Spencer Dunn, who manages the program, says, “Internal survey results from program participants [indicate that] over 90 percent ... had a positive experience with the process.”

King County also offers early mediation to employees through its Inter-Local Conflict Resolution Group. Ann McBroom, assistant manager of the program, says that in 2009, some 90 employees used mediation services and that the program is successful. According to a 2010 King County survey of those who used mediation, 76 percent experienced reduced stress levels after the mediation, 86 percent reported increased productivity, 73 percent felt communications had improved and 77 percent were satisfied with the working relationship.

Although many companies currently turn to their human resources departments to address employee conflict, Carol Bowser, founder of Conflict Management Strategies in Puyallup, says such programs may sometimes be less effective because employees may not see the human resources specialist as a neutral party. In her work as a mediator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Bowser says she often noticed that employees would file claims, even where there was no real discrimination issue, because they found no other way to get management’s attention regarding a work conflict issue. Companies that use a mediator to address brewing conflicts early on save money in the long run, says Bowser. “Offering mediation is a business decision that allows a company to get back to the business of their business,” she notes.

Human resources professionals are beginning to see the value to bringing in outside mediators in certain situations. Jane Mounsey, director of human resources at Bellevue-based GLY Construction, believes that when best practices are followed closely, human resources procedures can be effective in resolving employee conflict. However, in situations when employees may not trust the process, she says, it makes sense to bring in an outside mediator. That’s particularly true, adds Carole Pedersen, a human resources professional and owner of  Preston-based i 2 i Consulting, when there is a claim of sexual harassment. In such cases, the claimant often sees the human resources specialist as biased and lacking the sense of urgency required to address such complaints.

Although the use of mediators today tends to be more common among large companies and government agencies, smaller companies are also seeing value in the services. Mediators typically charge $250 an hour for a workplace mediation, but mediation usually occurs over a short period of time, resulting in lower costs than might result from a lawsuit.

Of course, mediation is not an effective option when one of the parties to a conflict refuses to engage. In such cases, companies may choose instead to hire a conflict coach who can work with the party who is interested in improving the working relationship. Mediation should also be avoided in cases where there might be safety concerns as, for example, when here have been threats of violence.

It remains to be seen if Boeing’s and King County’s successful use of early mediation represents a trend in the workplace. But workplace conflict is here to stay and the burden it places on corporate productivity is high. Early mediation is an important tool companies should consider in addressing such conflict before it escalates.

Selden Prentice is the owner of Prentice Mediation, a workplace solutions firm based in Seattle. Reach her at 206.715.0341 or seldenpre@comcast.net.

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