Ombuds helps employees tackle workplace conflicts

Four years after its creation, the ombuds office attracts a steady flow of faculty, staff and graduate and professional students seeking help managing workplace conflicts or other concerns. Since the office opened in September 2008, ombuds officer Elaine Newell has assisted 400 employees and students.

During fiscal year 2012, a record high 104 faculty, staff and graduate and professional students sought assistance at the ombuds office. Here's a look at how the office works and what it can do for you.

Tackle problems before they escalate

Newell's assistance is free, confidential and impartial. The role of the ombuds, she said, is to help people manage conflicts early and informally, before they escalate into formal grievances or litigation.

Newell said interpersonal conflict with supervisors, major professors, or colleagues brings most visitors to the ombuds office.  Meetings are usually one-on-one, with Newell and the visitor discussing a situation and developing options. In some cases (about 25 percent in 2012), Newell facilitates direct meetings between individuals in conflict or serves as a go-between for the two parties. She also is available to help supervisors develop options or resources when they’re faced with challenging situations.

"The ombuds office is developing a reputation as a safe place where people can confidentially talk about difficult topics or get ideas for managing interpersonal conflicts," she said.

Online help

The ombuds office partnered with the library to put information about university resources and conflict management in an easy-to-use online package. The Ombuds Office Resource Guide provides links to university offices and policies, as well as to books in the university library about conflict in the workplace, handling tough conversations and dealing with difficult people. Newell said the most popular sites within the guide deal with culture, diversity and conflict; gossip in the workplace and formal resolution processes.

Customized training

For university departments or organizations with specific needs, Newell also will provide customized training or facilitate group discussions about conflict management, respectful communication or other helpful topics.

Ombuds independence

While the ombuds office is part of the president's office, the ombuds office functions independently, Newell said. "As ombuds officer, I'm neither an advocate for my visitors nor a representative for management," she said. "Rather, I'm an advocate for respectful dialogue, fair practices, and mutual understanding."

Miles Lackey, associate vice president and chief of staff, called the ombuds office a valuable resource that's good for the university.

"A lot of people are using it," Lackey said, "and their feedback tells us that they like it.  We encourage people to use it. It’s unbiased, it’s confidential, and it can provide resources and ideas about how to handle a difficult situation.”

To visit the ombuds office

Ombuds office hours are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in 69 Physics Hall. To make an appointment, call 4-0268 or send an email to Visitors without appointments are welcome to drop in Wednesdays between noon and 1 p.m.