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NEWS | Oct. 4, 2016

Alternative Dispute Resolution seeks to defuse workplace conflicts

Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Public Affairs

Conflicts in the workplace arising from alleged discrimination or harassment can create a tense – or even toxic – environment.

However, the Air Force offers a program that can defuse disputes and leave parties satisfied while restoring calm to the office.

Alternative Dispute Resolution, or ADR, is defined by the Air Force as “an alternative means of resolving an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint without resorting to the lengthy and often expensive administrative process of agency investigation, hearing and appeal to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, followed by possible litigation in the courts.”

“Alternative Dispute Resolution is an opportunity for two parties to have a dialogue to address conflict,” said Maria Preda, Equal Opportunity and ADR manager at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. “It’s a forum to address the conflict in a nonantagonistic, confidential manner.”

The Air Force’s preferred ADR method is mediation, she said.

At the heart of the mediation process is the mediator, a neutral third party who assists the disputing parties in negotiating a settlement.

Mediators are volunteers who typically come from the military and Department of Defense civilian positions, including federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration, said Preda, who has also served as a mediator for 15 years.

People who are interested in mediating are required to attend a basic 40-hour mediation course offered by the Air Force at The Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., she said. Once they become mediators, they must remain current in their training.

Mediators must also possess the right qualities and have the time to commit to the job, Preda said.

“They should be strong communicators and be available to mediate,” she said. “They have to be composed and not intimidated by high-ranking officials and strong, forceful personalities.

“They also go through mock mediations to get a better idea of their ability to serve,” Preda said. “Mediating is a rewarding experience, but it’s exhausting mentally.”

Mediators used by JBSA ADR offices provide their services at JBSA locations, but they may also mediate disputes at federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, she said.

Mediation sessions vary in length, Preda said.

“The majority are single sessions, but there can be subsequent sessions,” she said. “It all depends on the complexity of the situation and the willingness of the parties. They can last 45 minutes or go to the next day.”

Complaints brought to the ADR process are typically discrimination-based.

For civilians, the nine bases for discrimination are gender, disability, color, race, religion, national origin, genetic information, age and reprisal, Preda said. For military members there are five bases: gender, sexual orientation, color, race and religion.

However, ADR also permits mediation of a non-EO workplace issue such as communication problems or personality conflicts, she said.
Complaints accepted for the ADR process are varied, but a common one is not being selected for a promotion or a particular job.

A mediator since 2009, Lakreisha Johnson, who now serves as EO and ADR manager at JBSA-Lackland, said her cases have included non-selections. Others range from disability issues to letters of reprimand.

“The biggest challenge is getting individuals on both sides to understand that participating in a mediation session and reaching a written agreement is not an admission of wrongdoing for anyone,” she said.

Mediation can be rewarding for participants, Johnson said.
“Any attempt to resolve a concern at the lowest level is commendable,” she said. “Even without reaching the point of an actual settlement agreement, having the two parties at least talk over the issues with a third-party neutral sometimes alleviates the situation and improves the working environment.”

The ADR process is also beneficial in other ways, Johnson said.
“It is voluntary, confidential, timely and economical,” she said. “It promotes early resolution, saves money and promotes creative problem-solving techniques.”

Lt. Col. Francis Gay, Air Education and Training Command Air Force Security Assistance Training international affairs program manager, also sees the benefits of ADR, but the process can be challenging.

“I like the fact that we can help people resolve their differences themselves and save the effort and trouble of more extreme measures like litigation,” said Gay, who has experience as a mediator at Hurlburt Field, Fla., and JBSA-Randolph. “The greatest challenge is getting past an impasse, especially when the people won’t even talk to one another.”

Like Johnson, Gay said the program saves time and money.
“The ADR program saves the government and all parties time, money and heartache by letting them find their own acceptable solutions while avoiding the lengthy time and effort to solve problems using other methods,” he said.

Although the ADR process often results in successful outcomes, people who believe they are the victims of discrimination or work in a hostile environment should go to management first, Preda said.
“They set the tone for the culture,” she said. “Management has to avail themselves of that opportunity.”

If a military member or civilian employee pursues the ADR process, mediation offers a chance to come away from the workplace and unravel miscommunication, Preda said.

“It’s a tool for everyone, and we don’t use it enough,” she said. “The parties often come out of the room relieved. The important thing is reaching a level of understanding because people have to return to the workplace.”

For more information on the ADR program, call 295-0552 at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, 671-5842 at JBSA-Lackland or 652-3749 at JBSA-Randolph.