When their employees get into disagreements with one another, managers have various ways of coping. For example, they can try to mediate the dispute themselves; they can make use of in-house procedures and systems set up for managing disputes, if they exist; or they can refer the case to a professional mediator.
Increasingly, employers are adding another dispute-resolution tool to that list: e-mediation, write Jennifer Parlamis, Noam Ebner, and Lorianne Mitchell in a chapter in the new book Advancing Workplace Mediation Through Integration of Theory and Practice. E-mediation, or mediation that relies on some use of information technology, is a type of online dispute resolution, or ODR. According to Parlamis and her coauthors, ODR sprang up in the mid-1990s as businesses and customers began doing business in cyberspace. Companies such as eBay and Amazon set up dispute-resolution platforms on their sites to try to settle disputes over transactions cheaply and quickly.
What is e-mediation?
Like traditional mediation, e-mediation is a voluntary process of resolving disputes with the assistance of a neutral third party, write Parlamis and her coauthors. In e-mediation, the role of technology is often likened to a “fourth party” in the process, and it is used to varying degrees. For example, e-mediation can be a completely automated system with computer-prompted information gathering, decision making based on disputants’ inputs, and no interaction from a third party at all. For the purpose of resolving workplace conflict, however, e-mediation is more likely to involve the “delivery of personalized, individual, as-close-to-traditional-as-possible mediation—at a distance,” write the chapter’s authors. Although workplace mediation is often conducted between parties who are located far apart, it can also incorporate in-person meetings.
Originally, e-mediation relied primarily on text-based communications, such as email. But thanks to videoconferencing services such as Skype and Google Hangouts, parties can now easily and cheaply communicate with one another in real time, while also benefiting from the visual and vocal cues that video conveys. Still, e-mediators continue to use email, text messaging, automated systems, the telephone, and other forms of technology to converse and coordinate during the mediation process.
To date, only a handful of studies have explored the effectiveness of e-mediation in the workplace; however, the early results in this and other contexts suggest that technology-enhanced mediation can be just as effective as traditional mediation. Moreover, parties often find it to be a low-stress process that fosters trust and positive emotions.
Why e-mediate at the office?
Employers might choose to use e-mediation to resolve employee disputes for the following reasons:
To resolve disputes among long-distance parties. When conflicts arise between employees working in different offices, e-mediation offers a way to manage conflict more cheaply than bringing them together in one location. Organizations may also be able to shorten the duration of disputes by using e-mediation because it reduces scheduling difficulties.
To lessen tensions in emotional disputes. Sometimes, as in family and workplace disputes, parties may be so estranged that they can barely stand to be in the same room, let alone negotiate in person. In such cases, technology can serve as a buffer and allow for more rational and productive discussions—even for employees located in the same office.
To appeal to tech-savvy employees. Younger workers who have used technology throughout their lives are likely to find e-mediation to be a no-brainer and may be especially suited to the process.
To minimize power differences between employees. A study by Katalien Bollen and Martin Euwema of the University of Leuven, Belgium, found that subordinates who mediated a dispute with a superior were significantly more satisfied with technology-supported mediation than with traditional face-to-face mediation. The use of technology seemed to reduce the power differences that employees perceived between them and their superior. Thus, e-mediation may enhance employees’ perceptions that the process is fair and equitable.
Plugging in to workplace disputes
In their chapter, Parlamis, Ebner, and Mitchell offer best-practice guidelines for managers who are thinking of making e-mediation available in their organizations, including the following:
1. Seek out experienced e-mediators. Look for mediators who are trained in delivering long-distance dispute-resolution services. Mediators should have specialized training in technology-aided mediation and a strong understanding of e-mediation practices and procedures, such as which technology to use when.
2. Use technology early in the mediation process. Parties can streamline the mediation process by completing computer-assisted assessments of themselves and the dispute before meeting online or in real life. This type of online intake allows the mediator to gain an understanding of the dispute without inviting discord among parties.
3. Hold e-mediation accountable for results. To ensure that e-mediation achieves its goals in the workplace over time, assign a point person or committee to monitor its usage and effectiveness in your organization.