Marathon Mediations Aren’t Good For Employees

Marathon Mediations Aren’t Good For Employees

I'm a mediator, and I've been one pretty much since mediation has existed. When I was trained, in the olden times, mediations were scheduled in 2 - 3 hour sessions. If they lasted longer and the parties were making progress, the mediation was reconvened another day, when the parties were fresh. I've found that most cases, if they're going to settle, can settle in 2 - 3 hours. Yet I find that mediations these day seem to be expected to last 6 - 8 hours or more. So what's happened to those reasonable-sized mediations?

I actually recently had a mediator say to me recently that her mediations frequently go until midnight. She was quite shocked when I responded that this one would not do so, and that, in fact, I had an appointment in my office at 4:00.

I started wondering. Am I just a curmudgeon?

Then I took my mother car shopping. It was while cooling our heels for hours waiting for the contract to show up that I realized why I absolutely despise the new, trendy marathon mediations. It's because the employee is just like a car buyer. The employee is either alone or with their one lawyer. The other side is there with a lawyer, an HR rep, maybe a couple other folks. Management is the car dealer. The mediator in the marathon is the salesman, trying to get the sale done. The marathon sale is a pretty nasty sales technique, used by car dealers for years successfully, and for one reason - to get the upper hand with the consumer.

Here's why I am going to continue to object to mediations that go beyond 3 - 4 hours:

Exhaustion: Just like the car buyer, the marathon process wears the employee down. They get careless, restless. Ready to take anything just to get out of there. They maybe have one lawyer, who is also tired. Management has an entire firm, just waiting by the phone and their computers. Possibly an insurance adjuster too. They can have multiple eyes on draft agreements to catch errors, even at midnight. Employees and their lawyers don't have that kind of backup. There is absolutely nothing beneficial to employees that can happen after 6 or 8 or 12 hours of mediation in one day. It's best to break it up into smaller sessions so everyone is refreshed and thinking clearly. I even wonder - is a mediator who allows a session to go that long meeting their ethical obligations to the employee? Don't they have a duty to make sure the parties are capable of clear thinking?

Abuse: Marathon mediations have an incredible ability to abuse the employee through time wasted, trickling out one by one all the reasons the employee sucked and deserved to be fired. They become shell-shocked, even depressed. They're already tired. The doubt creeps in.

Expense: Most mediations are borne half by the employee and half by the employer. At several hundred dollars an hour, the employer can make an already-poor former employee shell out dollars they can't afford with no intention of ever offering anything. If there's no offer after an hour, something is wrong in my opinion.

Here's how the marathon mediation starts. The employee gives an opening that lasts about five minutes. The mediator asks lots of questions. Lots. Of. Questions. This, despite getting a detailed position statement ahead of time. Then the employer goes, and speaks for half an hour. More questions.

Then comes the caucus. The mediator spends an hour with the employer side, then comes back without an offer. He wants to go over some facts instead. He'd like to spend an hour or so with us, then go back to the employer. That's when I'm certain the mediation is going to be a marathon.

Here's how I stop it from being a marathon. I ask if there's an offer on the table, and he looks at me funny. I say that, unless I have an offer over a specific amount in the next 30 minutes, he can call it an impasse. The mediator acts like I'm being the bad guy. But because I'm not exhausted, I'm not easily swayed. If, after an hour and a half, there's no offer (and by an offer I don't mean $500 or even $5000), it's time to go. Any mediator worth their salt can get an offer from management in an hour and a half.

I place a firm time limit on the mediation. In my case, I have a pretty immovable time deadline to pick the kids up from school. But it can be anything - a meeting scheduled afterwards, dinner plans, anything that keeps you from being persuaded to lapse into the marathon. Sure, if we're almost settled and I just need a few minutes, I can usually make arrangements to stay a bit later, but if we aren't close, then at the deadline we need to impasse or continue to another time.

Another thing I like to do is try to start negotiating even before the mediation. I like to see how close we can get before mediation so we're not starting from scratch. Then we can tell the mediator where we left off. If we impassed before mediation, the ball is almost always in management's court, since I always, always make a counter to any offer I've received. That way, the mediator can start with management. I don't understand why some management-side attorneys don't want to talk before the mediation when they aren't paying someone by the hour to talk to me. But most will gladly talk beforehand.

From now on, I'm going to tell the mediator right up front my time limit for the mediation. I'm going to tell them why. I'll even tell them about car dealer tactics if I have to. If we can't resolve it in that amount of time, then we can break and reconvene another day. Just like in the olden times.

So, do you agree with me, employee-side lawyers? Are marathon mediations bad for your clients? What about management-side? Do they actually benefit anyone but the lawyers and mediator? Are there any mediators out there who still limit mediations to no more than 3 - 4 hour sessions? If you think I'm wrong, I'd love to hear that too.

See more employment law posts on Donna Ballman's blog, Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home

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