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Posted 07.25.05

Changes to Dispute Resolution a Key to Success in Today's Workplace, MU Researcher Says

COLUMBIA, MO -- In today's ever-changing work environment, conflict is inevitable, even in the best, most democratic of workplaces. What will distinguish those workplaces that are most likely to be effective in the modern era is whether those inevitable conflicts are managed effectively and constructively. A University of Missouri-Columbia law professor says that workplaces that develop dispute resolution mechanisms that foster the fundamental values of democratic governance and avoid undermining democratic values will be successful in today's corporate environment.

"Going, if not gone, are the days when employees spent careers with the same employers, moving up the corporate ladder as seniority and skill permitted and onto retirement," said Richard Reuben, associate professor of law at MU. "Today, there's much more of an emphasis on results both for employers and employees, backed by a willingness of both to cut their losses and move on if their interests are not met."

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The shift in today's workplace may be seen as part of a larger democratization of the American workplace that is being fueled by a number of economic, cultural and other factors, Reuben said. He said that this shift should include changes to one of the more crucial elements to today's workplace: dispute resolution.

When a dispute does occur, dispute resolution should be structured in a way that constructively contributes to workplace culture by managing conflict effectively, and thus preventing unnecessary escalation and related harms, Reuben said. According to him, one of the strongest examples of dispute resolution is arbitration, where the disputing parties authorize a third party to issue a decision in their dispute.

As long as the arbitration is voluntary and/or non-binding, it enhances workplace democracy by providing both employers and employees another dispute resolution option, he said. However, if it is mandatory and binding, it can erode the very human, social and institutional capital that lies at the heart of the new workplace, Reuben said.

"Failing to implement these dispute resolution methods in a way that enhances the democratic character of the new workplace carries potentially serious costs in that they can erode the human and social capital that lies at the heart of the new workplace, especially trust and organizational citizenship behavior," Reuben said. "This, in turn, can have a negative impact on traditional measures of workplace success, such as diminished performance, retention, and compliance with corporate decisions, rules and policies."

Reuben's article recently was published in the Harvard Negotiation Law Review.

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