Ombuds office holds true to original principles

Photo by Tim Schoon.

Although the forms of workplace conflict have evolved over the past quarter-century—email conversations carbon-copied to certain people, an emotional social media post, OR MESSAGES TYPED IN ALL CAPS—the University of Iowa Office of the Ombudsperson sticks to its original guiding principles when working toward conflict resolution.

“We continue to operate under the original tenets of the office: confidentiality, neutrality, informality, and independence,” says Cynthia Joyce, one of the two ombudspersons staffing the UI office.

Year 25 annual report
The Office of the Ombudsperson’s 25th annual report can be read in full at www.uiowa.edu/~ombud/
documents/OmbudsYear25
AnnualReport.pdf
.

Joyce and fellow university ombudsperson Susan Johnson carry on the office’s tradition of being available to respond to concerns from or about staff, faculty, and students. Visits are strictly confidential. No written records are kept. The ombudspersons are impartial—they don’t choose sides, and they advocate for fairness. And while the ombudspersons report to the Office of the President, they do not provide information on visitors’ cases to the president.

“These four principles are all draws,” Johnson says. “For our visitors, the confidentiality aspect is likely the most vital, and the neutrality of our office maximizes our effectiveness.”

In recent years, the office has received about 500 visits per year.

“That might sound like a big number—it’s enough to keep us busy—but it’s on the low end compared with other university ombuds offices,” Johnson says. “As the numbers hit the recent 500-visit plateau, we actually viewed it as a positive. People are willing to come forward, and we are a resource to solve problems.”

 

How the office started
The UI Office of the Ombudsperson began to take shape when former University of Iowa President James Freedman came to campus in 1982 from the University of Pennsylvania, where he had served as ombudsman. When he discovered that the UI did not have an ombudsperson office, he encouraged the Faculty Senate to advocate for establishing one. The Faculty Senate appointed an “Ad Hoc Committee on the Ombudsperson’s Office” to study the issue, and the committee developed a proposal in January 1985. The office began operation Oct. 1, 1985.

The proposal emphasized the need for the office to be neutral and independent and also made a case for the importance of informal conflict management. In addition, the first annual report of the office, released in January 1987, stated that the office maintains confidentiality. The proposal described the scope of the office as serving students, faculty, and staff, and pointed out the two primary functions of ombuds offices: working with individual visitors and identifying and seeking to address trends on campus or “patterns of discontent” within the university.

Freedman appointed Anthony Sinicropi, a professor in the College of Business, to be the university’s first ombudsperson. The office has had an Ombudsperson who is a faculty member ever since, with faculty rotating through the position every two to four years. An increased workload prompted the addition of the first staff ombudsperson (Nancy Tomkovicz) in 1988.

 

Themes from Year 25
Joyce and Johnson recently released the 2010–11 annual report. In the document, they highlight certain issues that cause conflict on campus:

  • Disrespectful behavior
  • Discomfort and/or lack of experience with conflict management, and consequent avoidance of conflict
  • Problems with accurate performance evaluations
  • Mental health issues on campus
  • Vulnerable populations

The first item is no stranger to the report—it first appeared in the ombudspersons’ report from 1991. This year’s report shows that one-fourth of visitors to the office reported disrespectful behavior as a component of their conflicts. An element of disrespectful behavior that has drawn specific attention is bullying.

“Bullying is a hidden phenomenon—it looks different in the workplace compared with the school yard, it’s not necessarily as visible,” says Joyce, adding that it’s not a problem limited to geographical areas known for indirect communication, such as the Midwest. “People don’t talk about it; often times it occurs supervisor to employee, and there are fears of retaliation. People in this situation should recognize the safety of our office and seek our help.”

Joyce also encourages people to seek to resolve conflict early. “There is no problem too small for our office,” she says. “There seems to be a perceived high threshold for bringing conflict to our attention. But rather than waiting and letting issues escalate, it would be great if people would pick up the phone, talk to one of us as soon as possible, discuss strategies for resolution, and deal with the situation at that point.”

Johnson and Joyce are not just sitting back and waiting for a knock on their door. The pair provided 35 presentations of the office’s 2009-10 annual report and gave 22 informational presentations about the Office of the Ombudsperson to various units across campus. They also delivered 52 workshops on conflict management to faculty, staff, and students, more than double the number given the previous year.

They also really enjoy working to resolve conflict. Joyce came to the university after working 12 years in mediation on the East Coast, and Johnson’s previous two UI positions were administrative in nature—problem-solving was a big piece of her job.

“I like this sort of work,” Johnson says. “We want to help people—they shouldn’t suffer in silence.”