Staff Ombuds Office: The View From the Middle
by Erik Price, Public Affairs
In a report distributed earlier this semester, the Staff Ombuds Office summarized its activities during the last four years resolving work-related conflicts on the Berkeley campus.
The 13-page report, complete with graphs and statistics, discusses the ombuds mission and role, and the tools of counseling and mediation used in the ombuds profession. It also describes, in general, the types of campus employees who use the office and the kinds of problems they experience. Trends, goals and recommendations are also included.
The office is staffed by Ella Wheaton, campus ombudsperson, Margo Wesley, associate ombudsperson, and Michele Bernal, assistant ombudsperson.
Located at 2539 Channing Way, the ombudsers assist staff members who experience workplace problems, through group and individual counseling, facilitation and mediation.
Established in 1984, the office serves more than 1,000 staff members annually. In addition to group sessions and training programs, an average of 489 individual client appointments are made each year.
Managing conflict is a complex topic, especially at a place as complex as Berkeley, said Wheaton. In such an environment, conflict can arise from many different sources and can take many different forms.
The report notes that the percentage of campus departments using Ombuds Office services has nearly doubled, increasing from 25 percent to almost 50 percent, since 1993.
Wheaton and Wesley cite several reasons for the increase, including publicity, high-profile campus interaction and word-of-mouth referrals. The informal environment and the promise of confidentiality are also appealing, they say.
Our official role as designated neutrals makes us accessible to anyone in the campus community, said Wheaton. We are a safe service for referral, because we are not in competition with services that others provide.
Horace Mitchell, vice chancellor for business and administrative services, the Ombuds Offices control unit, said, The Staff Ombuds Office is excellent at helping individual staff members work through difficult issues on an informal and confidential basis.
Most of the nearly 500 individual counseling cases each year involve disputes and problems between employees and supervisors. Either party may seek Ombuds Office help.
During the last four years, 75 percent of office visitors have been female staffers. The report points out that women comprised 61 percent of the campus workforce during that time. Ninety-three percent of office visitors were in career positions. And the total number of visitors was almost evenly split between employees from the professional/management group and those from the clerical/administrative group.
According to the report, nearly 40 percent of workplace conflicts on campus involve communication difficulties.
We see poor, ineffective, hostile and indirect communication as constant issues, said Wheaton. In addition, with such a diverse environment, we may need to emphasize that communication is a two-way responsibility. It is as important to seek to understand as it is to be understood.
Often, Wheaton and Wesley said, conflicts between employee and manager arise from the perception of disrespectful treatment. Supervisors discretionary actions may also be seen as unfair or vindictive when not well communicated.
We do a lot of coaching in here, said Wesley. We work with people to be more persuasive in conveying their concerns.
This training can be useful in a face-to-face discussion between the parties involved, or in taking a particular problem to a higher level in the chain of command.
With clearer communication in mind, the Ombuds Office suite seems almost deliberately plain. Fitted with sound-proof walls, fully drawn venetian blinds, boxes of tissue, and a document shredder in each room, the place is very much the universitys listening post. Or, perhaps, its inner ear.
It is amazing how often people come in here and say that this is the first time they have truly felt heard, says Wesley, once the principal policy analyst for the Personnel Office and, like Wheaton, a long-time campus staffer. Both women joined the university in 1971.
The Ombuds Method
When Berkeley established the Staff Ombuds Office 15 years ago, it recognized that handling conflicts in the workplace informally can stimulate productivity and ultimately lead to stronger relationships. On the other hand, when conflicts in campus units are poorly handled or ignored, individuals and relationships suffer and operations can be permanently damaged.
What I find particularly satisfying, said Wesley, is finding a way for people to do their best in their work. When I first started here I found that most staff members are extremely proud of working for the university and are committed to the place. For the most part, they do not feel that they are in dead-end, enervating jobs. When conflicts can be resolved, we are freeing up these staffers and their departments to be the best they can be.
Ombuds offices, according to Wheaton, hold unique positions within organizations. They are independent from the managerial chain of command but have access to it at the highest levels. Always neutral, their power is, in Wheatons words, the power of influence.
At Berkeleys Staff Ombuds Office, aggrieved parties learn about their rights and options for exercising them. Cases of emotional distress and personal welfare are often referred to CARE Services. Staff members confused by the intricate federal, state and university regulations governing employment receive information on resources and referrals.
Communicating in the Future
Because communication breakdowns play such a large part in creating conflict, the report recommends several ways to enhance communication, be it through the managerial training in skills like listening, or more mindfulness of the Principles and Values expressed in Berkeleys Administrative Vision statement.
As for the future, Wheaton and Wesley said they are concerned that over dependence on email and voice mail systems as a means of communication may exacerbate problems.
Once a manager sends an email of instruction, said Wheaton, it becomes a piece of priority work, dated and on the record. If this becomes routine, with email after email coming in, an employee can feel swamped. Also, once someone criticizes via email, these statements are now more formalized. They are written, dated, stored somewhere permanently and can be used to build a record about someone.
Added Wesley: Use of email can, intentionally or quite by accident, raise office conflict to higher levels. When people have not bothered to form good relationships, email can often make matters worse. With email, you are missing two things that help you listen to and understand people: body language and tone of voice.
The Staff Ombuds Office can be reached at 642-7823, 2539 Channing Way #5140. Copies of the report are being sent to each campus department and it will soon be available on the web at http://stfombuds.berkeley.edu.
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