Labor and Employment Law

The Continuum of Dispute Resolution in the Workplace

 Today's blog is about dispute resolution. As a general matter, dispute resolution refers to one of several different processes used to resolve disputes between parties, including negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and litigation.

A recent discussion I had with a group of business people at various stages of their careers is the genesis for this blog posting. In the discussion, we were talking about the different dispute resolution processes we might use to resolve a dispute that was happening in their workplace. In the course of the conversation, two things became clear. First, we were not all using the various dispute resolution terms in the same manner. Second, we were not all clear on when the various tools might be used to resolve workplace conflict and the pros and cons of each of the processes.

In that discussion, I found myself sketching out on a piece of paper a dispute resolution continuum.  My simple sketch got us through that conversation, but when I got back to my office I decided to "pretty it up" a bit and created the following chart.

Defining the Dispute Resolution Processes

Before I discuss the continuum, I think it's important to define the common dispute resolution terms.


In negotiation, two or more parties discuss directly their conflict and try to resolve it.  There are no third-parties involved.


In a mediation, the parties in conflict ask a third-party (the mediator) to try to help them resolve their conflict.  The mediator is a neutral and does not decide what is "fair" or "right."  Rather, the mediator's role is to moderate and guide the process in an attempt to bring the parties together by defining issues and eliminating obstacles to communication.  Although a mediator may point out to the parties potential strengths or weaknesses in their positions in an effort to help facilitate resolution, the decision making power remains always with the parties to the conflict.


In an arbitration, the parties to the conflict have agreed that a third-party (the arbitrator) will hear the evidence presented by each of the parties and make a decision.  The arbitrator's decision can either be binding on the parties or non-binding depending on the terms of the parties' arbitration agreement.


Litigation is the term used to describe the filing of a lawsuit in court and the process that follows the filing of the lawsuit. Most commonly in litigation involving workplace disputes, issues of law are decided by a judge and issues of fact are decided by a jury.

The Continuum of Dispute Resolution

In looking at the dispute resolution continuum several things become clear.

     Parties Retain Control on Left and Cede Control on the Right

The first thing that jumps out at you in looking at the continuum is that as you move from the left to the right the parties increasingly cede control for decision making to a third-party.   Now many readers may think - well that's not so bad.  Sometimes you just can't resolve a workplace dispute and it's better - easier - to just hand the issue to a third-party and let them decide.  Maybe.

When I discuss the potential of having a jury decide a dispute with parties in a mediation, I often ask them whether they agree with who gets voted on and off of "American Idol" each week.  I know I don't.  Those same voters are members of the jury pool.  If you are the person involved in a workplace dispute query whether you want to make the decision of how to resolve the issue or whether you are comfortable turning it over to the "American Idol" voters.

     The Likelihood of a Win-Lose Answer Increases as You Move to the Right 

As you move to right on the continuum, the parties also increase the likelihood that one of them will be a loser and one of them will be a winner.  Notice the missed opportunity for a win-win resolution.

     The Costs Increase as You Move to the Right

Costs of lawsuits include not only the legal fees that each of the parties will pay their attorneys, but also fees associated with court filings, depositions and expert witnesses. There are also the non-monetary costs.  For employers, there is the productivity drain that an on-going workplace dispute causes. For the employee there is the personal distress and perhaps the absence of a paycheck depending on the circumstance of the dispute.

     The Workplace Dispute Becomes More Public as You Move to the Right

One of the biggest benefits to employees and employers who can successfully resolve their dispute in either negotiation or mediation is that they can agree to keep the resolution - and perhaps even the dispute - confidential.  In a workplace dispute, this can be particularly beneficial to both the employee and the employer. Depending on the terms of the arbitration agreement, it is also possible to have an arbitration and the arbitration decision kept confidential.

By contrast, litigation is public.  I think it is particularly important for parties to a workplace dispute to understand this point as it is increasingly easy for any interested party to go on-line and read all of the various documents that make up a lawsuit.  As such, investors or potential buyers of a company will often, as a part of their due diligence, read court pleadings to get a feel for the corporate culture.  Similarly, potential employers might read court filings as a part of their reference checking.

Insights for Employees and Employers

Control your own conflict.  Sit down and talk to each other face-to-face and see if you can negotiate a resolution.  If you can't do it on your own, retain an experienced mediator who knows the applicable laws and can work with you to find a win-win resolution.

Do not turn your dispute over to a jury.

Remember, juries are comprised of the same folks who vote for our "American Idol" each week.

To learn more about mediating a workplace dispute and how to prepare for a mediation, click here.   

Read more articles about managing workplace conflict at Win-Win HR, a blog by Lorene Schaefer.

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