Mediation makes it mark: New government program settles conflict, saves taxpayer dollars
By Kory Oswald
In the ongoing efforts to modernize and optimize state government, the Office of Management and Enterprise Services is spearheading an important facet of Oklahoma’s civil service reform by training state employees as mediators to resolve workplace conflicts.
The mediation program serves as an alternative to formal legal action, saving taxpayer dollars, aligning state agencies on a consistent complaint process and allowing more opportunities to preserve working relationships following disagreements. Since its official launch at the beginning of the year, the program has already garnered tangible results and is looking to recruit more volunteers to become certified mediators for those who serve Oklahomans.
Origin of the State Employee Dispute Resolution Program
Gov. Kevin Stitt signed HB 1146 into law last year, creating the Civil Service and Human Capital Modernization Act. Apart from eliminating the former state merit, or employee classification, system, the bill modernizes and reforms rules for state workers by consolidating human resource functions under the Civil Service Division of OMES Human Capital Management.
CSD manages the resulting State Employee Dispute Resolution Program and facilitates the new mediation process for government workers to contest disciplinary actions without costly lawyers and intimidating hearings. Certified mediators are central to this effort. They serve as neutral experts who lead sessions where parties involved in conflicts can communicate directly, clarify their points of view and work together to reach an agreement in a timely manner.
Written reprimands, punitive transfers, suspension without pay, involuntary demotions and termination fall under the mediation program’s purview. However, agencies can choose to adopt an internal complaint process for other issues.
“Basically, if it is not a written reprimand it will settle in mediation without going to court,” said CSD Director Stacey Foster. “One termination case did not settle in mediation.”
Merits of mediation
Before HB 1146, it could sometimes take years to settle a case. However, the new law requires cases to be settled within 25 days after the conflict or action occurred. The average number of days from action to closure is just over 21, said Foster.
“On average, we beat the state mandates by a little over three days,” she said.
Not all cases qualify for mediation. Once an employee submits a case, CSD approves or denies it based on whether it’s within the office’s statutory authority. During the first three months of CSD’s existence, they received 51 cases of disputes. Of those, 20 went to mediation, 13 were not settled in mediation because they were written reprimands, and seven cases were settled in mediation.
CSD and its team of mediators have saved taxpayers close to $10,000 since Jan. 1, but the real benefits of the State Employee Dispute Resolution Program are less tangible.
For one, state employees get due process and peace of mind when conflict occurs at work, and the mediators themselves become adept at conflict resolution, which can benefit every facet of life, said Mediation Program Manager Patti Ormerod.
“It also looks good on a resume,” she said, also noting the mediation skills volunteers learn can be the foundation for a successful career just as effectively as they can create bonds for successful relationships. They also help keep the peace in their personal lives as well as work.
Learning to be an effective mediator
CSD began recruiting state employees as mediators in January. These volunteers are state workers who get a chance to resolve employee conflicts while learning helpful new skills applicable in their personal lives and real-world situations. CSD hosted the first training session in February, and other mediators from previous courses in 2021 have been grandfathered into the program. Alanna Lam, who trained in August 2021, was the department’s first mediator.
“I find myself using the skills I learned in my professional and personal life regularly,” Lam said. “Particularly, my active listening skills. Being able to hear what someone is saying and repeat it back in a clear, unbiased way has helped me communicate better and avoid misunderstandings.”
Training for certified mediators consists of a 16-hour class divided across two days. Following the class, volunteers observe a mediation session and then practice facilitating and co-facilitating their own mediation sessions under a trainer’s supervision. After that, the trainer either certifies the trainees or recommends additional learning.
“We currently have about 20 certified mediators for our program,” said Mediation Program Manager Patti Ormerod. “And about 40 who have gone through training but need to be observed and conduct mediations.”
CSD will host an Initial Mediation Training on July 12 and 13. It is an open call to state employees who are interested in learning necessary skills to become mediators for the state.
For those interested in mediator training, email firstname.lastname@example.org.