Workplace Mediation

Howard Gadlin

Ombudsman, Center for Cooperative Resolution, National Institutes of Health

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

I am the ombudsman at NIH. There are two major parts of that work. One is working with particular disputes when they come up. They might be disputes between two individuals or disputes in a whole group -- a laboratory, a branch of an office, a division, an entire institute

And in many of the disputes that I work with in my position are disputes among scientists, they could be about authorship, the sharing of biological materials, the direction of a scientific collaboration, the functioning of a laboratory or whatever. The office also deals with more ordinary work place disputes, not necessarily just scientists. There are five of us here that work with cases, but my caseload is very heavily scientific these days. People who come to us for a variety of different ways of working with some thing.

Sometimes someone will come in simply to have coaching on how to handle a situation in a less adversarial way than they might do it on their own. At other times they are asking for more direct intervention on our part, and we then tailor an intervention to their particular circumstance with their history of the issues and the people and whatever it might be. We may use a sort of traditional mediation, at some points we do. We might actually create some hybrid intervention that is partly mediation and partly facilitating a whole group meeting. We sometimes work with groups who bring us a problem that gets re-interpreted as . I am not saying this clearly.

Often times, people think that problems they are having in the workplace involve personal differences and conflicts between people. When we look carefully at the conflicts that they have and the conditions in which they occur it appears that there are systemic factors that are supporting the conflict. People are in conflict in part because of the way in which there work and communication is organized in sort of self-contradictory ways, so we sometimes work with a group to sort of re-engineer its whole work process and take attention away from the individual disputes and try to understand the structural dynamics that are sustaining it. Sometimes we have to work at both levels at the same time. That is the one part of our job.

The other part of our job is recognizing patterns and problems within the organizations, such as procedures, practices, that are leading to the generation of conflicts -- unhappiness, grievances, and complaints -- and making

recommendations for changes in practices, policies, or procedures that would keep such conflicts from occurring. We do a lot of preventative, or prophylactic kind of work as well, trying to engage people. For example, at the beginning of scientific collaborations having partnering agreements where they spell out in specific detail what they expect of one another and they build in a mechanism for dispute resolution, rather than waiting for conflicts of that sort to arise. We have modeled that process after what the only core of engineers developed for developing partnering agreements in the construction industry but ours is tailored towards scientific collaboration.