ADR program: Life-changing, award-winning

  • Published
  • By Brandice J. Armstrong
  • Tinker Public Affairs
The small square room is painted soft yellow. Decorative accents including a black "YES" placard stands on a dark-stained credenza. The room holds a TV and DVD player and a similarly-stained round table with a bowl full of chocolates in the middle. There's a certain solace within the Tinker mediation room.

The room is one of two within Tinker's Alternative Dispute Resolution program office. Throughout the year, mediators gather in the rooms with complainants and respondents to apply early intervention skills and solve workplace disputes. More than 300 disputes are logged in a given year and at least 70 percent of them are resolved when ADR techniques are applied. Tinker's ADR office has proved to be such a vital asset to the Air Force that Director Terry Hirons recently received the individual 2008 General Counsel's Alternative Dispute Resolution Award.

"We are a neutral environment that provides an atmosphere to help resolve disputes," said Mr. Hirons. "ADR is here to open lines of communication, to mend working relationships and to make Tinker Air Force Base a healthier, happier and more productive work environment." At the core of the Tinker ADR team are 48 collateral-duty mediators, of which 40 have been certified through the Air Force Certification Program. Tinker's mediators account for more than 42 percent of the certified mediators in the Air Force.

The ADR process begins when a complainant expresses interest to resolve a dispute using ADR. The complainant is given an initial appointment and an ADR in-take official gathers pertinent information about the complaint and provides details about the ADR process. The in-take official then seeks out and briefs a respondent, or unit representative, with the information the complainant permitted the respondent to see or hear.

After both parties are briefed, the mediation date is scheduled and a collateral-duty mediator is assigned. On mediation day, all parties meet to talk about the issues and search for possible resolutions to the situation.

To ensure there is no conflict of interest between the mediator and the complainant or respondent, the mediator doesn't know either party, nor do they work in the same organization.

"The mediator is trained to listen and ask questions to help move the discussion along," Mr. Hirons said. "The [mediator] is not there as a judge, to make decisions or to provide guidance. A mediator is there to facilitate the discussion and help open the lines of communication." Lt. Col. Don Satterlee, a mediator from the 507th Mission Support Flight, agreed.

"The issues are dealt with in a civil manner with interested parties at Tinker," the lieutenant colonel said. "Complainants have some control over the outcome and as a result they feel dignity and respect because of their part in the process and outcome."

Complainants may seek the ADR process for a variety of reasons, but among the most prominent issues are low appraisals, harassment and discipline, said Rachel Agin, a mediator from the 327th Aircraft Sustainment Wing.

Ultimately, when all is said and done, mediators said, poor communication and perception of the issue are the top reasons people seek the ADR program and the aid of a neutral third party. The ADR program is primarily designed to help civilian employees, but can ultimately be used by anyone who works on base.

"Our goal is to help prevent and resolve workplace disputes," Mr. Hirons said. "If we can be of assistance in resolving disputes for civilian, military or even contractors, we are willing to help." The circumstances of each case will be evaluated for the appropriateness to use ADR and both parties must voluntarily participate in the program.
James Patterson, former 76th Maintenance Wing vice director who recently retired, is a strong advocate of the program. The 76th MXW, arguably the program's largest customer, has had several of its issues solved through the ADR program.

"In many instances there's a change of attitude, change of heart and that has a positive effect on co-workers, family members and spouses," Mr. Patterson said. "You see people come in here with a lot of anger and bitterness as to what happened, and once they resolve that conflict, often you see a huge change in behavior and the ramifications of that are far-reaching."

The program's reputation goes beyond Tinker's gates, as Mr. Hirons was recently recognized for an Air Force-level individual award. The award recognizes Mr. Hirons "visionary leadership, depth of knowledge, and expert communication skills while developing the Oklahoma City Air Logistic Center's ADR program into a leading example of the benefits of a proactive approach to conflict management," according to the award description.

Furthermore, because Mr. Hirons introduced education programs that helped prevent and avoid conflicts, the number of workplace disputes was reduced by 18 percent; additionally, the amount of ADR attempts and resolutions increased by 7 percent, according to the award description. But, Mr. Hirons said, the accomplishment is a group effort.

"We have an award winning team of stakeholders that includes the OC-ALC Staff Judge Advocate, 72nd Civilian Personnel Flight, Equal Employment Opportunity and Local 916 American Federation of Government Employees," Mr. Hirons said. "Our team also includes an exceptional cadre of collateral-duty mediators, and last but certainly not least are the professionals who make up the ADR program office -- Kelli Anderson, Debbie Crauthers and Karen Martin.

"This award is an affirmation that we're doing good things and making a difference," Mr. Hirons said. "I am blessed to work with people who give 100 percent day-in and day-out in support of this program. It's because of their 'service before self' attitude that the Tinker ADR program is successful."