As the country recoils from the latest multiple killings in Honolulu and Seattle, the U.S. Postal Service, whose experience with berserk employees gave rise to the term “going postal,” appears to be reducing workplace tensions with a program of conflict prevention through mediation.
After a number of deadly worker outbursts at postal service installations over the years, and with employee complaints of discrimination running at about 30,000 annually, the U.S. Postal Service in 1998 began testing mediated hearings between employees with grievances and their supervisors. The results were encouraging enough that the service decided to adopt the program nationwide in August.
According to Kim Brown, a postal service attorney and communications coordinator for its National Redress Task Force, the number of formal complaints filed against the U.S. Postal Service with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dropped 18 percent in the past year.
While there’s no evidence yet to link the drop in the number of complaints to the new program, Brown said, anecdotal evidence suggests a correlation.
Every postal worker in the country now has access to the program called Redress, for Resolve Employment Disputes, Reach Equitable Solutions Swiftly. Workers with a grievance have the right to meet with their supervisor and a trained referee to try to hammer out a mutually agreeable solution. More than 2,200 mediators have been trained.
The program targets complaints of bias on grounds of race, gender, age and disability. Of the 7,000 cases mediated this year, 81 percent were either resolved or dropped.
Worker complaints within the postal service often involve accusations of bias, and racial tension is believed to have been a possible factor in the December 1998 shooting in Milwaukee’s main post office that left one postal worker dead and two others injured.
While the motive for Tuesday’s shooting in a Xerox facility in Honolulu is still being investigated, company spokeswoman Christa Carone said 500 managers had been trained in workplace violence issues in the last several years. Mediation is a standard part of the worker grievance procedure among unionized employees at Xerox, she added.
Whether or not the company, which employs 92,000 people, would instigate any other programs in light of a worker’s alleged shooting of seven people in a distribution warehouse was unclear, said Carone. “We’ll have to take a breath and evaluate,” she said.
At the postal service, while managers would not directly link the drop in the number of EEOC complaints to the Redress program, they were clearly pleased at the improvement in the figures.
According to postal service attorney Brown, “We have not done enough studying to say there is a direct relationship. But we have looked at 7,000 exit surveys we receive (from people) who participate in mediation and the results are quite positive.”
According to Suzanne Milton, manager of workplace environment improvement at the postal service, assaults and threats within the 800,000-employee organization are down. In the last four years, the number of assaults by postal workers dropped from 1,000 to 500 and the number of threats against co-workers or supervisors decreased from 700 to 300.
While managers could not link the numbers to specific programs, the relationship may be more than chance. In 1995, 60,000 supervisors received training in how to recognize and diffuse potentially dangerous situations.
“It’s a pretty steady downward tend,” said Milton. “Something must be working.” This year the postal service will offer a shortened version of the same training to 600,000 union employees.
In an operation as big as the U.S. Postal Service, conflict is a given, said Milton. The more violent outbursts may simply not be preventable, but by focusing on smaller issues before they have a chance to escalate, she said violence could be avoided.
“We’re focused on really trying to improve workplace relationships,” Milton said. “We’re trying to get people to treat and manage their employees better. It’s incremental change but we’re trying to share best practices.”