By Cliff Foster
Metro State is planning to conduct a nationwide search to fill the new position of ombuds officer, a person who will work to resolve workplace conflicts, grievances and complaints, educate the campus about available resources, and flag trends or issues that may require action by the Metro State administration.
The Board of Trustees approved the ombuds office last Thursday as part of the 2012-13 budget. A committee of faculty, staff and administrators who reviewed programs at other institutions will screen applicants, with a goal of filling the position by fall.
The office will serve faculty, staff, administrators and visitors to campus; students can already turn to Student Conflict Resolution Services, part of the Office of Student Life,
The successful candidate for director of the Ombuds Office must have at least a master’s degree, five years of conflict resolution experience in a large organization, and employ the qualities of a successful problem solver—including impartiality, consistency, fairness, listening skills and a dedication to confidentiality, says Percy Morehouse, director of equal opportunity/assistant to the president and chair of the Ad Hoc Ombuds Committee.
“They won’t investigate complaints. Their role primarily will be to try to resolve complaints informally,” by identifying the issues and promoting dialogue among the parties to the dispute, Morehouse says.
“The ombuds would set the tone for people to have a civil discussion...and hopefully facilitate an agreed-upon solution to their dispute,” he says. If that doesn’t happen, the ombuds officer would refer the parties to an appropriate grievance/complaint process for resolution. Complaints of unlawful discrimination, such as an allegation of sexual harassment, race discrimination, etc. would continue to be handled by the Equal Opportunity Office.
In creating the new position, Metro State joins a growing list of organizations that employ an ombuds officer. According to the International Ombudsman Association, offices have been established “within hundreds of organizations worldwide and in every sector of society,” due to legislation, lawsuit settlements “and a growing recognition of the need for alternative channels for communication within organizations.”
Metro State at one time had an Ombuds Office but it was ineffective, in part because it was not well known on campus and people were confused about its role, according to Morehouse.
The Office of the President revived the idea in light of the 2010 employee climate survey, a discussion during the 2011 professional development conference and suggestions by employee groups. In addition, the Equal Opportunity Office and the Office of Institutional Diversity had received a number of non-discriminatory complaints that required mediation.
There are informal mediation resources and formal grievance procedures available to employees. However, those avenues aren’t appropriate for some day-to-day disputes and “that’s where an Ombuds Office would come into play,” Morehouse says. Such complaints might involve hurtful gossip or a perceived slight by one faculty/staff member of another.
“If you can get people to come together and talk to each other in a controlled environment where they feel safe then that’s the best way to do it.”
The ombuds officer will receive guidance from Associate to the President for Diversity Myron Anderson, but will have “significant independent responsibility” in maintaining confidentiality and resolving complaints.
“I hope people will take advantage of the office,” Morehouse says. “And if they take advantage of the office we’ll reduce the number of formal complaints…and get things resolved at the lowest level—between the people involved in a dispute.”
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