Alternative Complaint Process Resolves Issues Faster
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 27, 2001 Equal employment opportunity discrimination complaints can take weeks, months and even years to resolve. In fact, the average life of a complaint can be three to five years. But there is a way to address and resolve workplace disputes within hours: It's called "alternative dispute resolution."
The concept itself is not new, but the Washington Headquarters Service's Alternative Dispute Resolution Program is. The agency formally established the program within the Equal Employment Opportunity Programs Division, Personnel and Security Directorate.
"We hope to encourage customer interest by expanding current use of the ADR program simply because it minimizes an adversarial approach to addressing employee and management concerns," said Renee Coates, assistant division director. "It provides an opportunity for all parties involved in a workplace dispute to make a good-faith effort to try to resolve issues."
Alternative dispute resolution specialist Scott Deyo said ADR allows employees to return to a productive status quickly. That's good for readiness and mission effectiveness, he said, calling ADR a catalyst for better workplace communication. The method is particularly useful when communications between supervisors and employees or among co-workers has broken down or been missing, he noted.
"Alternative resolutions" can include conciliation, facilitation, mediation, fact-finding and arbitration, according to the 1990 Administrative Dispute Resolution Act. The act was reauthorized by Congress in 1996.
"Our administrative instruction, however, will focus on three tenets of ADR -- mediation, facilitation and peer- resolution paneling," Deyo said. "The main process we've been using is mediation, which is usually designed for two parties. The final outcome is usually a binding agreement that's acceptable to both participants.
"We routinely receive feedback that most individuals are pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to address concerns in mediation. Having a third party, who knows nothing about the conflict, makes an incredible and positive difference," he said.
Facilitation is designed to improve communications among groups. Peer panels, composed of five neutral colleagues of the parties involved, decide the outcome of the dispute. In the formal process, one person or regulated body typically is authorized to make decisions.
"In mediation, you find that people want to feel they have a voice among leadership and peers," Coates said. "They are searching for a comfort factor that their concerns matter to managers and colleagues. ADR introduces an avenue to have those concerns heard and hopefully resolved in a matter amenable to everyone."
Deyo said confidentiality and neutrality are critical aspects of ADR. "People need a safe haven to come to and talk about their disputes and conflicts," he noted. "Many of the situations we deal with involve difficult circumstances that employees feel they cannot discuss with their immediate supervisors."
ADR is a completely voluntary, "interest-based" process, he said. This means all parties must agree to participate.
"ADR focuses on the underlying interests and common ground of the people involved in a case. Deep down, I believe people really want to resolve their disputes as early as possible," Deyo continued.
Alternative resolutions allow individuals to address their disputes immediately without restrictions imposed by lengthy regulated processes. Mediations typically take about four hours to conduct, but even some of the more complex cases Deyo said he's seen have lasted only a day.