From Court Surrogate to Regulatory Tool: Re-Framing the Empirical Study of Employment Arbitration
24 Pages Posted: 21 Feb 2008
A growing body of empirical research explores the use of arbitration to resolve employment disputes, typically by comparing arbitration to litigation using relatively traditional outcome measures: who wins, how much, and how quickly. On the whole, this research suggests that employees fare reasonably well in arbitration. Yet there remain sizeable gaps in our knowledge. This Essay explores these gaps with two goals in mind.
The first and narrower goal is to explain why it remains exceedingly difficult to assess the relative fairness of arbitration and litigation. The outcome research does not account for a variety of "filtering" mechanisms that influence the relative merits of the cases adjudicated in each system. This Essay explores these filters, focusing on one in particular: most employee grievances are resolved within the workplace through relatively informal procedures. Workplace structures thus filter out most employee grievances before they reach arbitration. This fact has significant implications for efforts to interpret the arbitration outcome research. It also highlights the significance of the workplace as a locus of dispute resolution activity. Indeed, a growing body of research focuses directly on workplace compliance and grievance procedures.
Recognizing the significance of workplace dispute resolution leads to this Essay's broader goal. That goal is to expose, and hopefully bridge, an artificial conceptual divide that separates the arbitration research from research into workplace dispute resolution. Many researchers view internal compliance and grievance procedures as a means of harnessing the employer's own regulatory capacity. This conception drives a research agenda that explores the role of workplace structures in generating private norms and in implementing (or subverting) public norms like anti-discrimination. By contrast, the arbitration outcome research conceives of arbitration narrowly as a court surrogate, one that should ideally yield equivalent outcomes at lower cost. Although legitimate to a degree, this conception artificially separates arbitration from other employer-structured disputing procedures and yields an empirical agenda that leaves fundamental questions unanswered. This Essay closes by discussing two of these questions: First, do arbitrators play a meaningful regulatory role, either by shaping other arbitrators' practices or by shaping the terms of arbitration contracts? Second, under what circumstances do arbitrators effectively generate and enforce norms?
Keywords: arbitration, contracts, dispute resolution, employment
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