Using Online Dispute Resolution to Resolve Workplace Conflict

E-mediation, a type of online dispute resolution, can help organizations manage disputes among employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s how to get started.

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online dispute resolution

Many people are working from home these days, but that doesn’t mean disputes between employees have evaporated. In fact, the inability to hash things out in person might exacerbate long-simmering conflicts and leave people feeling even more alienated from one another. The stress we’re all facing from the threat of COVID-19 and disruptions to daily life might also make workplace disputes even worse.

During this time of remote work and strong emotions, online dispute-resolution tools are likely to be especially useful. In a chapter in the book Advancing Workplace Mediation Through Integration of Theory and Practice, Jennifer Parlamis, Noam Ebner, and Lorianne Mitchell explain how one of those tools, e-mediation, works and how to take advantage of it.

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What Is E-mediation?

Traditional mediation is a voluntary process of resolving disputes with the assistance of a neutral third party. Professional mediators rely on a variety of techniques to help disputants work through their conflict, including meeting with them separately and encouraging them to explore and articulate the interests underlying their stated positions. In contrast to other forms of dispute resolution, such as litigation and arbitration, mediation is a confidential, non-binding process.

Like traditional mediation, e-mediation—mediation that relies on at least some use of information technology—is a voluntary process, write Parlamis and her coauthors. E-mediation can be a completely automated online dispute resolution system with computer-prompted information gathering, decision making based on disputants’ inputs, and no interaction from a third party at all. In the realm of workplace conflict resolution, 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 e-mediation is often conducted between parties who are located far apart, it can also incorporate in-person meetings.

Originally, online mediation relied primarily on text-based communications, such as email. But thanks to videoconferencing services such as Skype, Zoom, 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.

Possible Benefits of E-Mediation

Early research on e-mediation suggests it can be just as effective as traditional mediation techniques. Parties often find it to be a low-stress process that fosters trust and positive emotions.

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, online dispute resolution may enhance employees’ perceptions that the process is fair and equitable.

Even when this time of social distancing is over, employers might choose to use e-mediation to resolve employee 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 resolve disputes more quickly with e-mediation, as it reduces scheduling difficulties.

When parties are so estranged that they can barely stand to be in the same room, online dispute resolution can provide a buffer and allow for more rational and productive discussions—even for employees located in the same office. In addition, younger workers who have used technology throughout their lives are likely to find online dispute resolution to be particularly appealing. 

Plugging in to Workplace Disputes

In their chapter, Parlamis, Ebner, and Mitchell offer best-practice guidelines for managers who are thinking of using e-mediation to resolve disputes between employees, including the following:

  1. Seek out experienced e-mediators. Look for mediators who are trained in de­livering online dispute-resolution 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 Parties can streamline the mediation process by completing computer-assisted assessments of themselves and the dispute before meeting online. 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.

Does your organization use online dispute resolution processes, and if so, have they been effective?

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