Resolving workplace disputes


Federal employees have a variety of ways to complain about the conditions of their workplace. The most common methods are:

  • An equal employment opportunity (EEO) complaint.
  • A hotline complaint with the Office of Inspector General.
  • A grievance under a collective bargaining agreement.
  • A grievance through the agency’s administrative grievance procedure.
  • A complaint of a prohibited personnel practice with the Office of Special Counsel.

With the exception of complaints filed with the OIG, the other processes have mechanisms for resolving the dispute without having to proceed all the way to a final adjudication. Those resolution methods involve mediation, facilitation or just an informal meeting or discussion. Give serious consideration to one of these alternative dispute resolution methods, whether you’re the employee filing the complaint or grievance, or the management official with the authority to resolve it.

Too often, these complaint and grievance processes involve hardened positions of the parties with a will to litigate through the bitter end. But in that scenario, while one party will technically win and the other party technically lose, often the battle does more damage than the original dispute. I do not suggest that all complaints or grievances can be resolved short of a full and final adjudication, but at least give serious consideration to each one rather than a pro forma, superficial consideration of the issues.

Here are some pros and cons to consider. One advantage of attempting an alternative resolution is that the dispute may be resolved amicably with some open and frank dialogue. Too often, one side or the other pre-judges the intentions of the other side and believes that “coming to the table” will not resolve anything and just be a sign of weakness.

If you think there may be some value in attempting an early resolution, having a dialogue may be informative. Alternative dispute resolution can also be a vehicle to repair and build trust, which may lead to a resolution, or may help to minimize the risk of a reprisal-like complaint. You may not actually resolve the dispute on the table, but you may reduce the tension, emotion and risk of a reprisal complaint by having a civil and candid conversation. All of that is good for the workplace.

The downside of attempting an alternative dispute resolution is that such an attempt can be read as a sign of weakness to a hardened adversary who thinks that it is an opportunity to take advantage of the act of goodwill to score some points in the workplace. I hear this often from managers and supervisors who are on the other side of union grievances in a workplace that has a lot of labor-management conflict. In those environments, litigation without settlement may be the best solution.

Another risk in engaging in alternative dispute resolutions is that the word can get out that someone got a fantastic settlement. Those gossip channels, which the federal workplace is notorious for having, can have the unattended effect of producing more complaints and grievances because of a perception that management will just settle.

My advice is to be strategic. Whether you are the complaining employee asked by management to come to the table or vice versa, try to be as objective as possible about the value and pros and cons of attempting to resolve the dispute short of full litigation. Often the act of considering and attempting a resolution can be very helpful to how you actually understand the dispute.


About Author

Debra Roth

Debra L. Roth is a partner at the law firm Shaw Bransford & Roth, a federal employment law firm in Washington, D.C. She is general counsel to the Senior Executives Association and the Federal Managers Association, host of the “FEDtalk” program on Federal News Radio, and a regular contributor to Federal News Radio’s “Federal Drive” morning show. Email your legal questions to

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