Federal Agencies use Peer Panels to resolve workplace disputes

I was reading a back issue of the “Federal Times” recently, and it contained a story about peer review as an up and coming way for agencies to resolve workplace disputes. http://www.federaltimes.com/article/20091130/PERSONNEL03/911300302/-1/RSS Peer review is decribed by proponents as an efficient, fast way to resolve workplace conflicts. In addition, according to preliminary research, peer review panel decisions are rarely overturned. Here’s how it works. A panel of randomly selected employees (at some organizations, these could also include Managers) hear both sides of the story and decide whether management fairly followed the rules. Attorneys are not involved. The manager and the employee present their side of the story in their own words, in private to the peer review panel. There is no cross-examination. Peer Review panels allow the employee to talk freely about the manager without the manager’s presence and vice-versa. The process is designed to be non-confrontational. Panel members vote by secret ballot to decide if the manager applied the policy or practice properly and consistently. The article explains that, although panels do not rule on the validity of the policy or practice, many panels do distribute “learning points” in some cases to help other managers understand how to avoid making similar mistakes, and sometimes make non-binding recommendations on policy issues. I was surprised to learn that peer review panels are slightly less likely to rule in favor of employees than other appeals processes, such as Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) appeals. The article also stated that companies that adopt a peer review system have a 62% drop in the number of unfair labor practice lawsuits filed. This is good news, and I am interested in learning more about peer review panels and how they may be added to the tool chest we have available in Alternative Dispute Resolution. I do have one reservation about peer review. One of the selling points of the above mentioned article was that that neither employee involved in the dispute is required to directly confront the other. While I can see how this might be advantageous in cases where the conflict is long-standing and intractable, the downside is that if employees and managers are not required to constructively confront one another, how are they supposed to develop this very important workplace skill? I also worry that this trend may play into the misguided assumption that conflicts at work are a necessary evil and should be avoided at all cost. Conflict, on the contrary is a vital component of a well-functioning office. Non-violent, interest based and consensus building dialogue within conflict can be the oil that keeps a healthy workplace ecosystem running. I am interested in peer review, but I also think we should be careful not to throw the “baby out with the bath water.”

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Stephen Peteritas

This totally reminds me of middle school and peer mediation. I have no problem with and support it as long as agencies and companies give the peer decisions a solid backbone, otherwise it’s just a waste of time.

Tom Melancon

Good point, without muscle to reinforce the decisions, people will become discouraged and refuse to participate.

Eileen Roark

Great idea for some agencies but not DOD. Most DOD agencies are rigid, male-dominated fiefdoms. What they say goes, and if one doesn’t salute smartly and get with the program you’re branded as a “non-team player” and treated like a plague carrier. Even if peer-based conflict resolution was implemented, they would simply ignore the recommendations and probably “punish” the perpetrators. Military supervisors and their male reserve/retired counterparts aren’t interested in the truth. If it comes down to a civilian female complaining against a male, the other males would simply close ranks. I’ve seen this happen many times during my career, and it also happened to me personally. The military workplace is not an egalitarian democracy and they will fight to the death to keep it so.

Tom Melancon

Thanks for the comment. I don’t believe any ADR approach can be effective in all situations. As was mentioned in Stephen’s comment, a program like this will only work if the agency backs up the recommendations of the panels. Also, if the people involved in the process can’t do so without fear of retribution, it will do more harm than good. As with anything, the idea is about 20%, implementation is the other 80.