Using alternative dispute resolution techniques to solve employee-manager disputes can save time and money and improve the workplace environment, several federal agencies have learned.
After reviewing ADR programs at the State and Agriculture departments, the Postal Service, the Air Force, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and five private companies, the General Accounting Office has reported that techniques such as mediation and arbitration can often settle disputes between employees and managers more quickly and agreeably than the administrative redress system used in most cases of workplace conflict. But ADR programs are not without their pitfalls, as several agencies have learned when experimenting with the new approach.
Federal managers and employees often find the traditional complaint process for allegations ranging from discrimination to retaliation for whistleblowing to be a maze of accusations and bureaucratic processes in which neither the interests of the employees nor the employer are served (See No Way Out, November 1996). In recent years agencies have begun using ADR to reduce their backlogs of cases and cut costs associated with those cases.
In its first two years of operation, Walter Reed Army Medical Center's ADR program resolved 68 percent of the 160 cases it dealt with. Moreover, 90 percent of those who used the program rated it as good to excellent and 70 percent said their work environment had improved as a result of the program.
Employees with disputes visit the ADR Center, a division of Walter Reed's personnel office, where a resolution officer decides if ADR would be an appropriate method to deal with the employee's complaint. Then the employee and supervisor, as well as a senior manager who can authorize settlement agreements, meet with a mediator to work out the conflict. According to GAO, settlement agreements include "handshakes, apologies, training, or other reasonable relief the employees requested."
However, some managers at Walter Reed felt that ADR settlements undermined their authority and conceded too much to employees. Resolving officials have become more judicious as a result, the center's dispute resolution officer told GAO.
A mediation pilot program at the State Department has also revealed valuable lessons. A State official told GAO that complainants "do not want to confront their supervisors, but want an investigation and hearing to vindicate their position." State also found that outside mediators tend to have more credibility with employees than internal mediators. And mediation should not be used in cases involving large monetary settlements, a violation of criminal law or security issues, State found.
The Agriculture Department, which has been plagued by discrimination complaints recently, tried ADR, but attempted to use it to settle cases "at all costs." That focus on settlement for settlement's sake upset supervisors and may have encouraged employees to file complaints, the department reported. "The prospect of receiving a cash settlement may have motivated some employees to file complaints, and the expectation of receiving cash may have impeded solution," GAO said.
Despite the difficulties agencies have faced implementing ADR, all of the agencies GAO studied have committed to using ADR to resolve workplace disputes. ADR processes, particularly mediation, resolved a large percentage of disputes, helping managers and employees avoid the administrative redress system and litigation. Of the 1,714 cases mediated by the Postal Service in Southern California, 1,605, or 94 percent, were resolved.