A Jury of Peers

Dec. 21, 2004

Just in their infancy five years ago, peer-review panels are becoming more popular because of their quickness in resolving disputes, says Martin F. Payson, employment law attorney in the White Plains, N.Y., office of Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman. But keep in mind, he says, that such panels can only affirm decisions or reverse or modify actions. "A peer-review panel does not have the ability to make new policy for the company, only decide if the existing policy was accurately applied." Companies that use peer-review panels generally ask for volunteers who want to be trained as panel judges and train between 5% and 10% of the workforce. That creates a large enough pool so that friends, co-workers or supervisors arent part of the panel. Some companies even let employees choose their own judges. The typical size: three in small companies, five in large companies, with the panel weighted against management. Its also advisable to use someone from human resources as a nonparticipating facilitator for the panel, which questions the employee and the supervisor at separate times and also questions any witnesses. The employee perceives the process as fair because it is a review by his or her peers. The panels tend to be "less emotional" than a jury and do "more fact-gathering and evaluation," says Payson. And supervisors tend to make better original decisions, "because they know they might have to justify their decision in front of their peers." The keys: impartiality on the panel and training peer-review panelists on how to act as judges of facts. Payson notes: "You have to teach them the 10 key concepts: Be open-minded; consider only the facts presented; do not bring in any prejudices or bias; be a good listener and not jump to conclusions; ask questions but not be argumentative; decide based on the facts in the room; be conscious of existing company policy; decide based on existing company policy, not what they think the policy should be; keep what is said in the room confidential; and keep in mind disclosure laws."

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