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Mediation: a possible asset for EAPs: though mediation is not always a good fit for workplace disputes, mediation services can provide EAPs with another tool to add to their repertoire of skills.

About 12 years ago, I got a call from a police officer concerned about problems he was having with his 7-year-old son, who was acting out at school. The officer explained to me that he was divorced from his son's mother. The divorce had been difficult and was still causing tension, and it appeared that the conflict was the source of the son's behavior problems.

After talking with the officer, I obtained his reluctant permission to call his ex-wife to discuss their song problems. To my surprise, she said she was willing to come to my office and talk with her ex-husband about the issue. I was even more surprised when, out of mutual concern for their son, they agreed to work together to resolve their conflict. Almost immediately thereafter, their son's behavior improved greatly.

It is difficult to overstate how wonderful it feels to work with an employee and help him/her successfully resolve a problem. In this particular case, the successful intervention with the police officer helped get me interested in the issue of mediation.


At that time, the City of Savannah was facing a number of workplace conflicts that also beset many larger organizations. These conflicts typically arose as a result of miscommunication between two workers but then grew; bringing others into the fray. Over time, the unresolved conflict would cause all sorts of work performance problems.

Though I was often asked by supervisors to address these conflicts, I began to realize that I was not always effective in resolving the underlying disputes and could benefit from learning a new skill. I wondered if there was a way to use formal mediation training to become better equipped to resolve conflict in the workplace. The city's Human Resource Department not only offered to pay for me to be trained but also encouraged several other city employees to register for the training.

I completed the basic 20-hour mediation training and then proceeded to seek certification as a mediator, which required undergoing observed mediations, co-mediations, and supervised mediations. I then applied to the Office of Dispute Resolution under the State Supreme Court to become a mediator.

With my background in therapy I found mediation training to be easy, though the mediation model is a more formal process of getting disputants to come to the table to talk about the problem. This model is good at setting guidelines, motivating the disputants to find resolution, and using techniques like caucusing when the disputants can't reach harmony Mediation also seeks to find concrete solutions to problems--in fact, at the end of the process, the disputants are expected to put the solution to their problem in writing.

I received a lot of support from the Human Resources Department in seeking to be more proactive toward resolving conflicts. The department rewrote the city's grievance policy to focus more on conflict resolution--for example, including mediation as a tool for supervisors to resolve conflicts (with the understanding that it would be overseen by the EAP). Human Resources also created a new position, that of employee relations coordinator, to help establish employee focus groups and address issues causing employee conflicts. The employee relations coordinator and the EAP work together to teach managers at all levels better techniques for resolving conflicts.


Since these changes were implemented, there have probably been an average of five or six mediation procedures conducted each year. Most of them have helped the disputants resolve their conflict, and I believe many EAPs could benefit by incorporating mediation into their conflict resolution toolbox.

Mediation and dispute resolution is a growing field that has been dominated by attorneys who are in the lucrative position of spending many hours trying to help people resolve conflicts while charging very high fees. Now" several other professions whose members do not charge such high prices are entering the mediation field. These new entrants include EA professionals who have chosen to get involved with mediation because of their work with employees in conflict.

Although mediation has its limits and should never be offered without a thorough explanation of its strengths and limitations, I feel it can work well for both internal and external EAPs and with both large and small companies. To understand how mediation can be effective in your EAP practice, you need to be aware of the following issues:

Certification. Though I have heard of some EA professionals who have taken a course or read a book on mediation, I would not regard anyone as a mediator unless s/he is certified. Mediation training is all well and good, but it is no substitute for certification.

Neutrality. EA professionals sometimes find it difficult to play the role of mediator because a mediator needs to be "neutral." Many times, an EA professional will already have talked with an employee before a problem reaches the point of requiring mediation. EA professionals need to know when to resist trying to be the mediator and instead call upon another source of mediation services. Being certified as a mediator gives an EA professional access to a network with other mediators who can provide backup support. EA professionals need to be sensitive to the need for neutrality and be able to operate as the "gatekeeper" for mediation services for their client organizations.

Authority levels. Mediation does not work well in resolving conflicts between supervisors and employees; rather, it is best suited to conflicts between disputants who are on similar work/power levels.

Role of management. Mediation needs to be driven by management. Once you agree with a supervisor to mediate a conflict, "walk" the supervisor through the process of making the referral to ensure it is based on workplace performance. An example would be for the supervisor to call both employees into his/her office and tell them their conflict is affecting workplace performance and is being referred to the EAP for mediation. You will find that mediation works very well when supervisors motivate the disputants to resolve their conflict. (Two employees may ask to have their conflict mediated but, where possible, the supervisor still needs to be notified of the process.)

Alternate solutions. Always view mediation as a "last resort" for dealing with employee conflicts and encourage managers and supervisors to use any and all other tools at their disposal to resolve a conflict. When asked by a supervisor to mediate a conflict, discuss the issue to see if there are other approaches the supervisor could take. Keep in mind that mediations are complex and take a lot of time (both yours and the disputants') to conduct properly.

Confidentiality. When the disputants come to the table in a traditional mediation, confidentiality is usually the protocol. In the case of a workplace dispute referred by a supervisor, however, the mediator should consider not respecting confidentiality in two areas: First, if a resolution is reached, the agreement needs to be put in writing and sent back to the supervisor to use as a tool to ensure both employees abide by its terms in the future; second, if a disputant refuses to participate in the mediation, the mediator needs to stop the process and inform the supervisor of the employee's actions.


Although mediation is not always a "clean fit" for workplace disputes, more and more EA professionals are offering mediation services to their clients. While mediation is certainly an attractive tool to add to your repertoire of business services, I would encourage you to be careful in how you apply mediation skills to your practice. Playing the role of "gatekeeper" for mediation services for your clients may provide you an opportunity to work more closely with management in their attempt to resolve workplace conflict. Networking and contracting with other mediators may provide you not only with service support but also protect you from problems.

Workplace conflict is an issue that EA professionals need to keep on their agendas. Mediation can be a great tool in addressing this issue. As one supervisor told me, "Mediation says to an employee, 'You may not like the people you work with, but you've got to find a way to work with them.'"

Chris Wilburn is an employee assistance coordinator for the City of Savannah (Ga,) and has been in the EA field for 17 years. He helped establish the South Georgia Chapter of EAPA and served as its president for nine years. He can be reached at Chris_
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Title Annotation:Employee assistance programs
Author:Wilburn, Chris
Publication:The Journal of Employee Assistance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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