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  4. Remarks of Linda I. Workman Vice President, Workforce Effectiveness ConAgra Foods, Inc.

Remarks of Linda I. Workman Vice President, Workforce Effectiveness ConAgra Foods, Inc.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Meeting of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
"EEOC Mediation Program and the Workplace Benefits of Mediation "
December 2, 2003

Madam Chair, Madam Vice Chair, Commissioner Miller, Commissioner Silverman, Commissioner Ishimaru and colleagues: On behalf of ConAgra Foods, I appreciate the opportunity to appear before the Commission to offer our comments on the Workplace Benefits of Mediation.


ConAgra Foods, home of many famous consumer food brands, is one of North America's largest packaged food companies, serving consumer grocery retailers, as well as restaurants and other foodservice establishments.

This is a very important time in the history of our company as we take steps to become America's Favorite Food Company. Last week, ConAgra Foods finished two divestitures that complete the strategic reshaping of the company into a branded and value-added packaged foods company, which really marks the beginning of a new era for ConAgra Foods.

Through a series of strategic portfolio changes that include the divestiture of fresh beef, pork and chicken processing operations, a canned seafood business, cheese processing businesses, a crop inputs distribution business and other smaller commodity-oriented businesses, along with the acquisition of many popular brands, the company has concentrated its capital in branded and value-added foods. Today ConAgra Foods has more than 40 favorite brands including ACT II, Armour, Banquet, Blue Bonnet, Brown 'N Serve, Butterball, Chef Boyardee, Cook's, Crunch 'n Munch, DAVID, Decker, Eckrich, Egg Beaters, Fleischmann's, Gulden's, Healthy Choice, Hebrew National, Hunt's, Kid Cuisine, Knott's Berry Farm, La Choy, Lamb Weston, Libby's, Lightlife, Louis Kemp, Lunch Makers, MaMa Rosa's, Marie Callender's, Manwich, Orville Redenbacher's, PAM, Parkay, Pemmican, Peter Pan, Reddi-wip, Rosarita, Ro*Tel, Slim Jim, Snack Pack, Swiss Miss, Van Camp's, Wesson, and Wolf.

But even as we move deliberately and quickly to re-shape the company through acquisitions and divestitures, and transform our marketing and operating models with smart, aggressive strategies, it is important to note that there are certain things that are basic and core to who we are as a company. And our future is just as importantly built on those values and beliefs like teamwork, accountability, ownership, integrity and diversity.

It is those values and beliefs that prompted ConAgra Foods to enter into a National Uniform Agreement to Mediate with the EEOC in March of 2003, which is what we are here today to discuss. Disagreements and misunderstandings, unfortunately, are a fact of life, and at times they extend into the workplace. We entered into the EEOC's mediation agreement on a voluntary basis because it fits with our values and beliefs of promoting equal employment opportunity. We also recognize the value of early dispute resolution when it can be reasonably achieved. Mediation just makes good business sense.

Prior to signing our agreement with the Commission, we had utilized mediation to resolve discrimination charges on a limited basis -- only when invited, by either the Commission or a state FEP agency, and only when there seemed to be a compelling reason to participate in the process. Since joining the Commission's Mediation Program, we have had an increase in opportunities to mediate, not because we've seen a rise in our number of cases, but because we now consider mediation in every case. This is of value to the company since it facilitates a greater number of charges being resolved, and resolved early in the administrative process, which is to the benefit of all parties involved, including the EEOC.

One of the key reasons we elected to enter into an agreement with the Commission was to increase the awareness, involvement and understanding of our HR managers and professionals in our field locations of the benefits of mediation to achieve dispute resolution. Administrative charges, whether filed with the Commission or another federal or state agency, can have the effect of creating an adversarial environment that can lead to further proceedings, including litigation, unless a healthy intervention takes place to resolve the matter. Mediation provides an opportunity for such an intervention that, when successful, assists the parties in promptly returning to a more productive employment relationship, which is one of the chief goals of Title VII.

At ConAgra Foods, we want our HR professionals to utilize the mediation process whenever possible and recognize the benefits it can provide to both the company and the charging party. For this reason, in July of this year we offered in-house EEOC mediation training to all of our Operating Group HR staff. More than 80 members of our HR staff participated in the two-day training session, which will be repeated on an annual basis.

We wish to express our appreciation for the support we received from the Commission in developing this training which initiated our participation in the Commission's Mediation Program. Ms. Polly Choate, Director of EEOC Field Coordination Programs, came to our corporate headquarters and delivered an excellent presentation on the business wisdom of utilizing mediation, which was the kick-off session for our National Uniform Agreement to Mediate.

Workplace Benefits of Mediation

Since entering into the agreement with EEOC, we have recognized several advantages to participating in the Commission's Mediation Program, including:

When mediation is successful for an employee who has filed a charge, it allows the employee to return to workplace productivity more quickly since the need for a lengthy investigation process and adversarial relationship with the employer has been avoided. In this way, mediation contributes to workforce effectiveness.

Participation in the Mediation Program is another means by which a company can communicate to employees that the company is committed to providing equal employment opportunity.

The mediation process can be an opportunity for an employer to explain and clarify the action taken as well as take any other actions that may be necessary. It is an opportunity to practice positive employee relations.

The mediation process often narrows the issues that need resolution. Even if mediation fails, this can translate into a less expensive and more focused internal investigation by an employer.

Mediation, if successful, saves time, energy and any other costs associated with the issue. The company will not have to respond to the administrative charge by submitting a position statement to the Commission.

In our experience, mediators are either EEOC investigators or attorneys well versed in employment discrimination law. This enables them to be effective in helping the parties to become more realistic in their settlement expectations. This is a crucial step toward a successful mediation.

Mediation isn't all about money; it's about finding practical solutions and remedies that are unique to the individual charging party and their employment circumstances. For example, some of our non-monetary remedies have included:

Re-stating and reinforcing company policies, if necessary.Identifying a designated contact person in a plant to whom the charging party can go to with questions or concerns. Explaining or clarifying the reasons for actions the company takes. Providing diversity awareness training for co-workers or supervisors. Providing the charging party with a positive or neutral letter of reference. Referring inquiries about the charging party's job performance to a company representative trusted by the charging party to give a positive recommendation or neutral reference. Transferring the charging party to another job location or department.

From an administrative perspective, we also see several advantages to participating in the Commission's Mediation Program:

It allows us to establish a single contact person in the company to receive charges filed anywhere in the company. This expedites our communication with the Commission and also simplifies our internal tracking of EEOC charges.

The program accelerates the scheduling of the mediation, which may contribute to faster and less expensive resolution of cases.

Our agreement with EEOC does not limit our flexibility to manage charges. Since mediation is not mandatory, the company still has the right to participate, or not, on a case-by-case basis.

EEOC mediation is not burdensome. Mediation conferences typically take half a day to a day to complete. Attorneys are not required. No transcript or record is kept, which encourages a full and open discussion among the parties.

In conclusion, based on our experience at ConAgra Foods, the EEOC Mediation Program is a valuable tool and a sound approach for addressing the resolution of administrative charges in the workplace. We encourage other employers to consider using it and we commend the Commission for making the program available. Thank you.

This page was last modified on December 2, 2003.