Postal Mediation Program Gets Stamp of Approval

By Laura Melton Tucker, March 31st, 2010

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Postal workers are unsung heroes.  In Iowa, where I live, my mail carrier braves all sorts of weather to deliver my mail.  Add in climate change (think Arctic and Saharan weather mood swings) as well as the threat of discontinuing Saturday delivery, and you have a beleaguered work force facing tougher working conditions and decreased pay.  That’s a lot of workplace stress.  In the old days, before the USPS adopted its progressive and successful mediation program, REDRESS, a frustrated worker’s best hope was to look for another job or file a grievance with the EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) Office.   Like plugging a dike, fixing a problem without getting to the underlying emotions can lead to more stress down the road which, next time,  may erupt with greater force.  With this problem in mind, the Post Office decided to think outside of the box.  What they came up with is a conflict resolution approach based on the transformative model of mediation.  The program  has become a prototype for other businesses seeking a way to “redress” workplace conflict.

REDRESS (Resolve Employment Disputes to Reach Equitable Solutions Swiftly) is a bottom-up conflict resolution model in a top-down management organization.  The USPS management structure loosely resembles the military.  Like the U.S. Military, the Postal Service is one of the United States’ oldest institutions. And, like the military, the Postal Service is built on a system of ranking authority, obedience to rules, and lines of command.  But, something in the system wasn’t working right.   Between 1986 and 1997, angry USPS workers gunned down more than 40 people in over 20 incidents of workplace violence.  This crisis point caused the USPS to take a hard look at its grievance process and change it up.  In 1998 they adopted a transformative style mediation program that allows workers to meet face to face on company time to talk about their problems.  Rather than place an evaluative mediator at the table, acting as the authority to weigh the merits of each case, more  top-down decision making, they chose instead to empower the parties experiencing the conflict.  In transformative mediations, the mediator is neutral, and oversees a fair mediation process where the participants make the decisions.  Most importantly, when the parties hold the power, they’re able to transform the conflict, not just fix it.  What does this mean?  Consider the following opposing scenarios.

Two co-workers share a deadline for a project they’re working on.  One of the workers fails to complete her share.  The other worker feels frustration and anger because he feels that his co-worker has intentionally done him harm by  making him look bad to the boss.  In a grievance process, an evaluator might ask the offending co-worker to apologize and pledge to complete work on time in the future.  Case closed.  In a second scenario, the two co-workers  mediate their conflict.  During the session both sides have an opportunity to hear the other point of view and talk about their emotions.  The offending co-worker has a chance to hear why missing the deadline is so upsetting to the co-worker:  “Aha!  That’s why he’s so angry.  He thinks I want a promotion and that I have set him up to look bad to eliminate him as my competition.”  This is an opportunity for the offender to explain that, in fact, she missed the deadline because of a crisis at home.  Understanding the other person’s perspective has transformed the conflict and repaired the working relationship.  By contrast, the grievance report may have dealt with the problem short term, but the grudge between the workers would strain future interactions. Grudges lower morale and impede productivity.  Addressing the emotion behind a conflict allows for the problem to be transformed,  not just fixed.

The report on the efficacy of REDRESS is in.  According to a recent article in the Conflict Resolution Quarterly, formal grievances filed with the Postal Service EEO are down 17% annually.  More people are choosing mediation over a formal complaint process than in the past. According to another report, an added benefit of REDRESS is an improved USPS communication culture. The skills that workers learn at the mediation table translate to the workplace.  According to the report, once workers realize that conflict disputes may eventually end up in formal mediation, they’re more likely to take matters into their own hands and start their own face to face  mediation process. Since conflict happens over time, and because workers are likely to continue to interact with supervisors and co-workers with whom they have a dispute, face to face communication offers the best hope for early intervention and conflict transformation.

The REDRESS USPS  program is more evidence in a growing body of research that shows that talking through conflict works.  The takeaway for all of us is that mediation allows us to address the emotional dimension of conflict. When we examine the emotions underlying misunderstanding, we can begin to transform our feelings, our perspectives and ultimately our conflicts. Twelve years ago, the USPS placed its hopes, organizationally and fiscally, in mediation, in order to eliminate the term “going postal” from the national vernacular.  My mail carrier, for one, is grateful that he hasn’t heard “one of those jokes” in a very long time.  And, on that note, gotta go.  The mail’s here!

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