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Mediation can save time and money

Stacy EricsonIt’s surprising how often we view the same circumstances from different perspectives, especially when we’re in conflict.

Most of us have been in situations where there was conflict between employees. When it escalated, productivity and efficiency dropped. Resentment simmered.

When conflict erupts, firing one or both employees is one costly solution. A better solution is using a professional mediator.

A well-trained mediator can defuse tensions, help the parties involved hear each others’ concerns, and aid in drafting a plan of action to avoid problems in the future. One afternoon can make a surprising difference.

In Idaho, mediation is a vital part of the court system, especially in small claims, where individuals and small businesses are heard on a wide variety of issues. Each week in the 4th District Court I am impressed by the role of mediation in small claims cases scheduled for mandatory mediation prior to appearing before Judge Roger Cockerille for a formal trial. This court venue is known as the “people’s court,” because all of the clients are pro-se (not represented by attorneys). Through mediation, both parties usually make a real effort to come to fair agreements under difficult circumstances in a very short time.

According to Pamn Madarieta, the court’s mediation services coordinator, approximately 75 percent of the cases settle and are dismissed the same day after mediation. More importantly, when the cases are resolved in this court venue, 94 percent of the mediated agreements are complied with.

Business cases provide some of the most interesting mediation opportunities, because both parties share an intrinsic desire for success and profitability.

Take the case of an upscale restaurant where the entire staff threatened a walkout during the height of the holiday season. The crisis had come to a head at a point when peak profits were expected, and a new manager had come on board with new rules.

Several of the wait staff described being publicly humiliated when they were sent home because the new manager did not deem their all-black attire dressy enough. The manager required that all cell phones be turned off for the duration of the shift, and eliminated some existing perks.

The changes, and the perception of a “rude” attitude on both sides, caused matters to escalate to the point where customer service suffered. The new manager felt he had just been “whipping a slack operation into shape,” as he had been hired to do. But the staff responded with barely disguised sneers and a lack of cooperation. The business owner was at a loss to see how her smoothly running restaurant had degenerated to disorganization, petty haggling and a threatened walkout in the space of a few months.

She brought in a mediator. The mediator emphasized that the manager and the employees both valued respect, and both sides felt that their authority had been compromised and their expertise undervalued. All the employees agreed that cell phones belonged in their lockers, but felt that turning them off was impossible for those with small children. Through mediation, the new manager and two employee representatives agreed to sit down together and draft a new employee manual. By the time the mediation was finished, manager and employees were joking together and planning a Christmas party while the business owner looked on in astonishment.

Conflict management and conflict resolution are increasingly hot topics in business, legal, nonprofit and educational enterprises. Studies show corporations increasingly use mediation, as opposed to arbitration or litigation, to resolve disputes. Mediation is less expensive, more efficient, more fair and more confidential than litigation. It’s certainly more effective than inaction, and usually less expensive as well.

Idaho contributed early on to the growth of alternative dispute resolution when it started a professional association 30 years ago in 1983. Today in Idaho there are strict requirements for licensed mediators, who must be well trained in de-escalation techniques, agreement writing, listening and problem analysis, rapid intake of information, confidentiality, conflict styles, neutrality, ethics, and communication skills. Training in Idaho requires a minimum of 40 hours of basic training emphasizing role play and ethics; 40 hours of observation, co-mediation, and supervised solo mediation; and 40 hours of additional education in specialized areas to merit certification by the Idaho Mediation Association.

Skilled dispute resolution can avert a crisis, preventing the loss of valued staff and months of critical time. In so doing, it can also improve the workplace environment for all.

Stacy Ericson is administrator of the Idaho Mediation Association, a statewide group that  assists in the training and certification of mediation professionals. For more information about mediation in Idaho subscribe to the IMA newsletter or consider participating in September’s annual conference.

About Stacy Ericson