Every workplace has the potential for conflict. Some of that conflict is healthy, spurring competition among employees, leading to a better work product. Other conflict is unhealthy and can cost everyone involved in lost production, worsening health, overt or covert sabotage, legal battles and lost jobs. Although not the answers in every situation, mediation and workgroup facilitation can be valuable tools to improve an unhealthy workplace. Upon analysis, the other options don’t stack up well.
How does an employer win the battle to maintain a productive and healthy work environment in the face of conflict? One option is to simply clamp down, stress the rules of the workplace and ignore the roots of the discontent. Things will then get worse. Seeing no other choice, an employee may file suit alleging a hostile work environment. If disciplined, demoted or fired, an employee may file a discrimination complaint. After 18 years as a REDRESS mediator with the U.S. Postal Service, I have handled over 130 of these EEO complaints. I have also facilitated entire workgroups, either before or after things get to the point of actual complaints being filed.
One response by an employer is to defend the suit in court. This typically takes years to come to a conclusion. If the judgment is in favor of the employee, the employer will have borne years of legal fees and then be forced to pay a judgment of perhaps thousands of dollars and possibly calculated back wages. The employee may then be returned to the workplace. If the judgment is in favor of the employer, those same mountainous legal fees will have been paid, minus the judgment. So, in that case, the employer wins, correct? Not really. There are costs associated with hiring and training a replacement employee and diminished production until the new employee is fully trained. This does not even consider the impacts on other employees due to the ongoing disruption to the work environment. No matter what happens, the bottom line for the employer suffers.
What about the employee who brings the suit? He/she will incur legal fees and expenses. Even if the attorney takes the case on a contingency basis (e.g., one-third of the judgment paid by the employer goes to the attorney), there are other expenses to be paid (attorney travel, investigation costs, etc.). These reduce the eventual payout to the employee even further. During the period of the lawsuit the employee may have no job (if he/she was terminated). It typically takes months or years for the court system to resolve the matter, one way or the other. If the employee loses the suit, the job is typically gone, there is no back pay, and a career has been interrupted. If the employee wins the lawsuit, the judgment still has to be collected, and it may not be nearly as large as hoped when the suit was filed. In any case, the employee’s professional life is essentially on hold for months or years.
An increasingly preferred alternative is mediation. This can be used as an alternative to court, or it can be tried at any time during the formal court process (and is often ordered by the court). If mediation is initiated early in the process, legal fees, lost wages, rehiring/training costs, etc, can all be kept to a minimum or eliminated. If mediation does not result in a settlement, the court process can always proceed. If there is a mediated settlement, many good things can happen:
The outcome of the workplace conflict is decided by the employer and the employee – not a judge.
- A job can be preserved for an employee.
- A workplace environment can be improved.
- The losses and costs for the employer and the employee can be minimized.
- Mutual respect can be preserved or regained.
- Resolution of the conflict can happen in weeks, not months or years.
- My experience over 18 years of mediating workplace conflicts demonstrates that well over half of all mediated cases settle in a way that is satisfactory to everyone involved.
An individual workplace conflict is one battle in the war against an unhealthy and non-productive work environment. It is very possible to go to court and “win” such a battle but lose the long-term war. I suggest mediation or workgroup facilitation, instead.