The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is known mostly for its aggressive investigation of complaints in the workplace. But like all federal agencies, it's being forced to cope with mounting caseloads in a time of diminishing resources. And it's not immune to larger trends in the law.
Thus, the agency is increasingly focusing its efforts on alternative dispute resolution, a means for settling disputes more amicably through arbitration or mediation.
The Cleveland district office notes that among the advantages of voluntarily submitting to neutral third-party intervention, both parties can bypass the grueling investigation process in a confidential proceeding which isn't recorded. The principals need not even bring their attorneys, although they're permitted to do so.
Written settlement agreements result in closing proceedings before the agency, and outside experts note that by law, both parties have a few days to unilaterally revoke their agreement, much like a consumer can take back a big-ticket a purchase. In the approximately two years since ADR has been introduced in the Cleveland EEOC district, about 200 cases have been handled through some form of ADR, says Loretta Feller, the ADR coordinator.
While the agency, under its own statutes, can't characterize the progress of its nonpublic ADR deliberations, other specialists say the program has met with some success.
"I've heard that it's working fairly well," says Eileen Vernon, an attorney who heads the Northern Ohio office of the American Arbitration Association, a national network of private arbitrators and mediators which shares some independent mediators with the EEOC's program.