Shared Neutrals Program
The “Shared Neutrals” Program was developed in response to a goal of the Alamo Federal Executive Board to “reduce costs and improve efficiency” for its members. Below is information on how we began this effort.
The “Shared Neutrals” Program is a project to provide mediation as an alternative to resolve disputes in the federal workplace. The shared resources of the Alamo federal community form this program comprised of forty-four mediators from thirteen federal agencies in five different geographic areas of the state. This is to ensure that mediators may be assigned to agencies (other than their own) to emphasize the mediator’s neutrality. The vision is to resolve disputes at the earliest possible date to increase the quality of communication within the workforce, resulting in maintaining a productive work environment and reducing the cost and time involved with formal processes. Federal employees may request these services by completing a one-page form and submitting it to the FEB Office.
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and the establishment of an ADR Consortium have been a topic of interest for the Alamo Federal Executive Board for many years. We first surveyed our membership regarding an ADR program in 1994. When FEB members were asked to estimate the number of employees interested in ADR training, the response was enthusiastic. Accordingly, in developing the FEB’s Strategic Plan, the ADR Consortium was identified as a specific strategy to accomplish one of the Plan’s objectives, that of organizing special initiatives to reduce costs and maximize savings.
In order to benefit from the experience of an established consortium, the Alamo FEB Director contacted the Chair of the San Antonio ADR Consortium to obtain advice, “lessons learned”, and suggestions on how to best begin. The Chair of the Alamo FEB’s consortium provided information, advice, and suggestions on how best to begin. After several conversations between Alamo City and Dallas, a meeting was to determine feasibility and resources available that may assist in training.
A monthly FEB luncheon meeting was scheduled, dedicated to the topic of Alternative Dispute Resolution, to discuss the tangible and intangible benefits of utilizing ADR in the workplace, selling the idea to members in attendance. Separate meetings were scheduled with a few large federal employers in the area to enlist support.
The FEB Director located training resources within the State Supreme Court which were available based upon each trainee providing 10 hours of mediation service for the Court over the next twelve months. Meetings were scheduled for all the planning participants to discuss the most efficient method to leverage the available resources. A Leadership Associate began coordinating the training and identifying facilities.
Due to the interest and number of responses, the one-week training was conducted twice to provide maximum participation and reduced instructor-student ratio. Only 30 applications per session were accepted (on a first-come, first-serve basis); however, every effort was made to ensure slots were distributed equitably among participating agencies. Union representatives and Labor Relations Specialists were encouraged to participate in the training on an “evaluation” basis to determine the value of the process and familiarize themselves with what would be made available for federal employees (including all of their members) in the San Antonio area.
Federal agencies were asked to select individuals to serve as mediators, providing their services as a collateral duty, on an as-needed basis. The employees were trained through the partnership with the Alamo State Supreme Court, utilizing a modified version of their mediation curriculum which has also been bolstered by EEO training provided by an Administrative Judge, EEOC, as well as advanced mediation training provided through the auspices of the VA Medical Center. In identifying individuals to attend the training, agencies were asked to ensure they identified employees who:
- Possess strong receptive and expressive skills; are good communicators.
- Are able to suspend advice-giving.
- Availability: must be willing and able to commit to the program for one year, including 10 hours per year to work with the Alamo Supreme Court.
- Have a tolerance for conflict.
- Demonstrate confidence; possess leadership qualities.
The employee identified for training (and their supervisor) were asked to sign an agreement of support to participate in the program for one year to receive the training at a minimal cost. Thirty-two hours of classroom instruction was provided through this partnership to provide a total savings of $75,754 in training costs, alone.
The second training session was conducted in March 1998. Mediators were prepared and began with mediation assignments from EEOC Administrative Judges in April 1998.
Mediation can be utilized at any point, voluntarily, or as a result of arriving at the administrative hearing in the formal stage of an EEO complaint. San Antonio District EEOC Administrative Judges are requiring mediation using the Shared Neutrals Program cadre of mediators.
Mediation is provided as an informal method of resolving disputes with a fellow employee, manager or colleague. In mediation, a neutral person (a Mediator) helps two or more persons explore ways to resolve their differences and reach an agreement to best address their mutual interests. All parties must be willing to resolve the problem for this process to be successful. Mediation, unlike arbitration or court proceedings, has no focus on “placing blame” with the Mediator having no authority to force a decision on the parties involved. Those involved in the dispute decide what is important and make decisions based on those factors. A Mediator assists the parties in becoming “decision-makers” through establishing communication which leads to an understanding of each other and allows the individuals to create options and solutions to address their concerns. This process helps individuals involved in a dispute to communicate with each other; encourages the persons affected to create their own solutions and examine unique solutions to a problem instead of referring the problem to a judge, arbitrator or another outside decision-maker; thus maintaining control by the individuals involved, and helps the persons involved develop realistic and mutually satisfactory solutions.
An employee’s right to pursue court or administrative action is not affected by this process. If unresolved issues remain at the end of the mediation, the Mediator and the complainant will state these issues in writing during the final mediation session, and the complainant may continue processing them through the formal complaint/grievance process. Mediations ordered by EEOC Administrative Judges do not defer other processing of cases toward hearing dates.
The Shared Neutrals Program accommodates the involvement of the following participants:
- Any current or former federal employee or applicant for a federal employment opportunity in the State of Alamo who has a federal workplace dispute can participate in the Program
- Union: An authorized representative for the aggrieved person if:
- the employee is covered by a union contract
- the dispute could result in a grievance
- Management participant: The Agency representative who is authorized to negotiate and execute binding settlement agreements on behalf of the Department.
- Mediator: An impartial, neutral third party trained in conflict resolution techniques, who has been approved to participate in the Alamo FEB Shared Neutrals Program. When deemed beneficial, sessions may be conducted in which co-mediators (two) are assigned to facilitate the process.
- Attorneys: If an attorney represents a party, the attorney’s role must be discussed with the Mediator prior to the mediation session. In EEOC-ordered mediations, the parties’ attorney may appear and participate.
Evaluations to Ensure Ongoing Effectiveness:
The Program is evaluated using three (3) different feedback mechanisms:
- Customer (User) Survey – This form is voluntarily completed by the users of the Program (employees, management reps., etc.) at the end of each session.
- Annual Federal Executive Board Member Survey – This is completed on an annual basis by the members of the FEB, rating the Program as meeting/not meeting their organization’s needs.
- Mediator Survey – The person most intimately involved in the process completes this survey which provides their perspective on what works and what needs improvement at the conclusion of each session.
Statistical Reporting to determine Cost Savings:
- The San Antonio EEOC Office is providing statistical information to the FEB regarding success rates and agencies served through EEOC-ordered mediations.
- The FEB Office is tracking the same statistical information regarding agency requested mediations, as well as receive the feedback forms to track effectiveness and customer satisfaction.
The information will be compiled and shared among FEB members but will omit to identify information that would violate the Privacy Act. These instruments and statistical information will be combined to evaluate the ability of the Shared Neutrals Program to meet the needs of the federal community in San Antonio. The input also allows for future improvements and modifications to the Shared Neutrals Program.
The FEB Director and EEOC-San Antonio maintain frequent communication in an effort to ensure the program remains flexible and continues to meet the needs of the federal community in San Antonio. As needs are identified, the program is quickly tailored to respond to unique, as well as routine, demands. This has been the commitment of the coordinators involved in order to showcase an ongoing, viable program that provides a needed service to federal employees and employers which results in:
- a friendlier, more productive workforce
- saves money for the taxpayer
Results thus far:
- Required mediation prior to EEOC Hearing has resulted in reducing the number of cases that actually go to the hearing (due to settlement).
- Feedback through the forms distributed for input from parties and agencies indicates 100% agree that the mediation helped (even in cases that did not result in a settlement).