The University Record, April 26, 1999

Consultation and Conciliation Services offers confidential shoulder to lean on

By Jane R. Elgass

You work in a team setting but are finding that increasing flare-ups among members make getting work done difficult and leave you uncomfortable.

You feel as though you're getting the raw end of the deal in terms of work assignments among colleagues, but don't know who to talk to about the problem.

A co-worker belittles your efforts, and you need someone--other than your supervisor--to advise you on how to handle the situation.

Things are so bad you're considering filing a grievance, but aren't sure what that may involve.

All of these are common scenarios that regularly are brought to Sally Johnson and Don Perigo at the Consultation and Conciliation Service (CCS). And with Johnson's and Perigo's help, faculty and staff generally get things resolved, or at least reach a point that "brings opposing sides closer together."

A brochure detailing the unit's services describes consultation as "a private conversation with a consultant to air any work-related concerns and to explore alternatives for addressing them. Conciliation is a voluntary, early-stage effort to avoid or resolve a work-related dispute." At an individual's request, CCS will arrange for a professionally trained neutral mediator to help the affected parties express needs, identify issues and explore solutions.

The services are available for faculty and regular or temporary non-bargained-for staff on all three campuses.

In operation since 1995, CCS recently relocated to the Administrative Services Building, offering a more private setting for those who want to discuss work-related problems. Perigo and Johnson also may be contacted about talking at staff meetings on dispute resolution. The office also has pilot programs under way at the Health System and on the Dearborn and Flint campuses.

Confidentiality is strictly maintained, Johnson notes, and nothing goes "on the record." Files are numeric and anything that might be an identifying factor is shredded. In addition, Johnson's and Perigo's voice mail systems are confidential.

Johnson says an increasing number of individuals are contacting CCS about mediation services, most of them faculty. "The percent who request mediation is higher than their proportion of the population, but they may have a better sense of what is involved in alternative dispute resolution," Johnson notes. In addition, faculty do not have personnel representatives with whom they can discuss problems, while staff members do.

Johnson and Perigo, who do the bulk of the work because of scheduling factors, are able to call on about 15 other mediators if they need assistance. All have received training in alternative dispute resolution and are "trustworthy, wise and safe," Johnson notes.

A good conciliation effort takes at least three sessions to get at the issues so schedule flexibility is important, she adds.

While staff sometimes find it difficult to envision mediation as an option--they already may have been "turned down" by a supervisor, Johnson has found that they benefit greatly from eventual mediation.

"The dynamics of a neutral third party in the room, particularly if it is a staff member/supervisor problem, changes the conversation. Supervisors can get their message across and staff members are not as defensive." Johnson and Perigo annually work on about 120 cases that involve staff and supervisors.

Typical staff cases can range from a long-term employee taking personally criticism of the system or process by a newcomer, to an individual who has a major boss (and intermediate bosses) who has a negative attitude and is critical of everything the individual does.

Faculty cases typically involve colleagues or administrators, generally related to personality conflicts.

Johnson and Perigo can be reached at the CCS office, 936-4214, or directly: Johnson, 647-1056, sallyj@umich.edu; Perigo, 647-0546, dperigo@umich.edu. For copies of the brochure detailing CCS services, call 936-4214, or visit the Web, www.umich.edu/~mediate.