Resolving Workplace Conflicts; Offering Mediation Services Allows an EAP to Reduce Workplace Conflict While Encouraging Employees to Take Control of Their Interpersonal Disputes and Improve Their Work Relationships

Article excerpt

The Jefferson County (Colo.) Public School system's employee assistance program was established in the early 1980s and continued operating until 1999, when it was eliminated due to budget cuts. When it was revived in January 2001, mediation of employee disputes was added to the menu of EAP services.

One of the core philosophies of the Jefferson County EAP is to help empower employees to gain the skills and acquire the control they need to solve their problems. Mediation is a process that gives the individual a lot of control (as opposed to arbitration or the legal system, where a person turns over control to someone else).

When we mediate conflicts, more often than not the participants are people who are struggling with interpersonal relationships at work and want to find a way to get along with their fellow employees and be able to work together. They're usually doing fine in most areas of their lives, but they're experiencing a workplace conflict with a co-worker or supervisor and need a vehicle to help resolve it. Mediation is an attractive option in these situations as well as an effective way for the EAP to demonstrate its value to the work organization.


Differences in personal histories, belief systems, work styles--all these things can, and do, generate interpersonal conflicts. By the time these differences escalate to the point where the people involved are considering mediation, the conflict is usually bleeding over into the workplace and other people are noticing. As a result, there may be a certain amount of pressure on the parties to try and work things out.

When we mediate a conflict, it's generally between two people. Our role is to act as a neutral third party and facilitate a discussion or dialogue between the individuals to enable them to resolve the conflict. That process is different from arbitration, where the individuals present their respective "cases" to an arbitrator, who then renders a decision. Our role is simply to remain neutral and facilitate the problem-solving process.

A conflict could be between a manager and a subordinate, or it could be between two employees at the same level. More typically it involves people at the same job level, such as a teacher experiencing a conflict with another teacher or a custodian having a problem working with another custodian. A supervisor-subordinate mediation is a lot more difficult than a mediation between two employees at the same job level because at its core mediation assumes a dispute between two equally powerful parties, and that's not always the case in a hierarchical work organization with power differentials.

When we mediate a conflict between a supervisor and an employee, we have to be very clear with the supervisor that the mediation is about the two employees' work relationship, not about any type of disciplinary issue. We don't mediate disciplinary matters, nor do we get involved in any issues involving the negotiated labor agreement between employees and the school system.

Before we actually sit down with the parties involved, we usually conduct an initial assessment to determine the nature of the conflict and whether mediation is an appropriate option. For example, if two people are having a workplace dispute and our assessment determines that one of the individuals is severely mentally ill, mediation isn't going to work and we definitely would not encourage it. If a supervisor calls and requests a mediation and our assessment indicates it's really a disciplinary issue, we suggest a change of course and coach the supervisor on constructive confrontation. If someone is involved in a legal issue (such as a divorce) and requests mediation, we won't provide it but will refer him/her to a person or organization that will.

In conducting an assessment, we may talk directly to the people who are having trouble with each other, or we may talk to someone else who is familiar with the problem. …