David B. Harwi, Esq. and George Reath, Jr., Esq.

An increasing number of organizations are developing internal conflict resolution programs to resolve disputes among employees. These programs may address issues of legal rights, issues of fair treatment under corporate fairness or equity programs or issues relating to improved productivity through more effective communication.

Frequently vendors/consultants help to develop these programs for the organizations. Some programs embrace the use of the organization’s employees to act as neutrals in the mediation portion of the program. The vendors will then offer to provide training for the in-house neutrals. Clearly the cost of training will vary. One organization informed us that they spent $20,000 to provide ten employees with a three-day mediation training program.

Should employees act as neutrals in these dispute resolution programs? The answer is that it depends. Although you might have suspected that our desire to sell our services as mediators may dictate an answer that outside, professional mediators should always be used, we won’t say that. The nature of the conflict should control the choice between an employee or non-employee neutral.

Many internal conflicts can be and are handled effectively by internal mediators. However, using an outside mediator may be more appropriate when:

  • the appearance of impartiality is essential (i.e., can an employee ever appear impartial; to whom does she owe her loyalty; what organizational bias does he bring; does the dispute conflict with her agenda; does knowing too much put the rabbit in the hat);

  • confidentiality and the expectation of confidentiality are essential to the disputants;

  • emotions of the disputants run high; or

  • the stakes are significant (mediation is an experiential activity; you learn by doing; the more frequently you experience the conflict of others in mediation, the more effective the mediator becomes in an atmosphere of conflict; how many mediations will an employee-mediator do in a year; would you want a brain surgeon to operate on you when she only performs one operation a year).

Costs usually but not always favor internal mediators. Assuming most cases of employee conflict among reasonably high-level employees require at least two sessions, $20,000 could pay for more than ten mediations by an experienced, independent neutral. As employee mediators leave the company or take different positions, most companies with significant in-house mediation programs incur continuing training costs. Depending on the company’s annual mediation load, independent neutrals can be cost-effective even if circumstances do not otherwise point to an independent.

© Triage Mediation Services Inc. 2001

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