What is an Ombudsman or Ombudsperson?
The word Ombudsman is a bit unusual, so let's start with how it's pronounced: Om-boodz-muhn. In the eighteenth century, King Charles XII of Sweden is credited with appointing the first ombudsman. At that time, the role of the classical ombudsman was described as a government official who hears and investigates complaints by private citizens against other public officials and agencies. Here at Berkeley, the Staff Ombuds Office functions as an organizational ombudsman. While today's organizational ombudspersons no longer conduct formal investigations, they do work to help employees find constructive ways to resolve work-related conflict, disputes, and problems. It is an ombudsperson's role to listen, understand, coach, inform, strategize, problem-solve, mediate, refer, and provide upward feedback as appropriate.
To fulfill this role, the Staff Ombuds Office adheres to 4 basic principles included in the International Ombudsman Association's Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics:
Who does the Staff Ombuds Office serve?
The Staff Ombuds Office is available to all staff, non-Senate academics, and faculty who perform management functions (including deans, department chairs, and directors). Keep in mind, the Staff Ombuds Office does have limitations in working with represented employees, as unions have exclusive bargaining rights to some workplace issues. We are more than happy help represented employees in any areas that are not covered by the union contract. If you are unsure if your conflict falls into that category, give us a call. We are receptive, respectful, and welcoming to everyone accessing our services. To that end, the Staff Ombuds Office actively works to establish, maintain, and increase trust with all our campus constituencies.
When should I contact the Staff Ombuds Office?
In our experience, the sooner you contact our office with your concern, the better. While no concern or conflict is "too little" or "too big" for us to help you with, the sooner you reach out for assistance with your problem, the more options you'll have to resolve it effectively. Waiting can often limit your choices or escalate the situation unnecessarily. Reaching out, although it can feel intimidating, is a key step in getting the situation back on track. And, more than anything, you should not have to suffer through your situation alone.
How do I contact the Staff Ombuds Office and what should I expect?
The first step in getting assistance is to call us at (510) 642-7823. Our Assistant Ombudsperson, Rachel Nicholson, will ask you a few questions about your situation, and if appropriate, will schedule a confidential 90 minute appointment with Sara Thacker, Director and Ombudsperson, or Júlia Horvath, Associate Ombudsperson. During your meeting with the Ombudsperson you can discuss any work-related concern that's on your mind.
After your initial meeting, we may decide to schedule another visit or a coaching session to help you with your work-related issues. Within a few months or so, you can also expect to get a confidential "check-in call" from our office, so we know how you're doing and whether we can be of further assistance.
What can the Staff Ombuds Office do to help me?
The purpose of the Staff Ombuds Office is to provide you with a confidential, safe place to discuss your work-related concerns and to strategize options to effectively resolve them. The Staff Ombuds Office uses a variety of methods to help staff resolve their work-related concerns, including:
- Discussing your concern candidly to fully understand what you're going through and how you'd like to change the situation
- Creating a safe, confidential space so you can think through your problem and strategize how to best address it
- Exploring and developing options to improve your situation
- Coaching you on communication and conflict resolution skills so you may better help yourself manage the situation
- Providing information about your rights, responsibilities and available resources
- Acting as a go-between when you fear retaliation and/or when it is culturally inappropriate or uncomfortable to confront someone directly
- Facilitating constructive discussions
- Identifying patterns and causes of conflict on campus, and
- Making recommendations for systemic improvements
What can't the Staff Ombuds Office do?
We will do our best to provide the assistance you need. However, there are some things we cannot do.
The Staff Ombuds Office CANNOT:
- Discuss your concern or conflict with anyone else without your explicit permission
- Take sides
- Act as an advocate or legal representative for anyone
- Make management decisions
- Participate in a formal grievance or proceeding
- Offer legal advice
- Provide psychological counseling
- Create, change or set aside policies
- Mandate, order, or enforce behaviors or rules
- Keep records or accept notice for the university
- Conduct formal investigations
- Testify or serve as a witness
What are some common problems staff present to the Staff Ombuds Office?
Some common problems we see at the Staff Ombuds Office are:
- Communication related problems between co-workers, and between managers and employees
- Respect/Civility concerns
- Workplace bullying
- Work style differences
- Excessive on-the-job stress
- Ethical dilemmas
- Job/role clarity
- Workload issues
- Performance problems
- Equity and inclusion concerns
- New management & organizational change impacts
- Career development issues
- Recognition concerns
What might I gain from discussing my concerns with the Ombudsperson?
There are many benefits from discussing your concern with the Staff Ombuds Office. For example, you're likely to experience a sense of relief simply from thoroughly discussing your situation in a safe, confidential environment. You're also likely to gain a greater sense of clarity and perspective about your concern. You'll also acquire concrete strategies and options for how to address your concern and move forward.
Is the Staff Ombuds Office an advocate for those who use the office?
No. The Staff Ombuds Office does not take sides in a dispute. We do not advocate for individuals nor do we decide who's "right" or "wrong." The interests and rights of each individual involved in the problem are carefully considered with the aim of promoting a fair, balanced and civil process to effectively resolve the issues raised.
How does the Ombudsperson remain neutral?
The Staff Ombuds Office operates under the Code of Ethics of the International Ombudsman Association. Neutrality is one of the key ethical principles for an Ombudsperson. Neutrality means that visitors to our office can expect that they will be treated even-handedly, that we will not favor one person over another, that we do not have our own interests in the outcome of situations that come to us, and that we strive to be fair and objective in our consideration of information and the range of options we present. Though our salaries are paid for by the University, we remain unaligned and impartial in the handling of all concerns brought to our attention.
What authority does the Staff Ombuds Office have?
The Staff Ombuds Office does not have the authority to tell others what to do or not do. However, the Staff Ombuds Office does have the authority to negotiate and mediate resolution to work related problems and conflicts. The Staff Ombuds Office also has the authority to contact managers and senior officers of the University, to gather information in the course of looking into a problem, to bring concerns to the attention of those in authority, and to attempt to expedite administrative processes. Although the Ombudsperson does not have the power to change University rules or policies, the Ombudsperson can make recommendations to those with the authority to make changes. The Staff Ombuds Office also has the power to issue biennial reports with recommendation for the campus community.
To whom does the Staff Ombuds Office report, and what exactly is reported?
The Staff Ombuds Office is an independent department within the Office of the Chancellor. The Director and Ombudperson, Sara Thacker, reports directly to Associate Chancellor, Khira Griscavage, for administrative purposes only and does not report on or disclose the substance of individual cases or concerns.
The Staff Ombuds Office is not a "record keeper" for the University. Confidential case notes are shredded regularly and routinely. The Staff Ombuds Office keeps anonymous, aggregate demographic data for statistical purposes only. The data is retained in order to identify emerging trends, highlight issues and areas of concern, and to make recommendations to senior leaders on campus. Based on observations from our caseload, the Staff Ombuds Office provides regular feedback to University officials regarding systemic problems and publishes official biennial reports for the campus community.
How does the Staff Ombuds Office add value to the University?
- Provides a safe place for employees to discuss their concerns without fear of retaliation or escalation to formal proceedings
- Supports and empowers staff to more effectively manage and/or resolve work-related problems and conflicts
- Facilitates informal, two-way communication and mediates complaints to resolve allegations of bullying, harassment, discrimination, and other issues that could otherwise escalate to costly and time consuming formal grievances and litigation
- Prevents conflicts through training staff, supervisors and managers in effective communication and conflict resolution skills
- Improves staff productivity and efficiency by decreasing time spent handling workplace conflicts, disputes, and problems
- Improves staff satisfaction, morale, and retention by providing an informal, comfortable and accessible resource for concerns to be heard and addressed
- Identifies and provides information on how to report unethical behavior, policy violations, ineffective leadership, and illegal conduct
- Institutionalizes an early-warning system to alert management and senior leaders about negative trends
- Mitigates risks by providing timely and informal resolution of complaints and conflicts
- Reduces exposure to negative press by addressing issues at the lowest and most direct level possible
- Acts as a central information and referral resource for policies, processes, and resources within the University
- Gives regular upward feedback to management and senior leadership about organizational issues and trends
- Offers an independent and impartial voice, which helps foster greater alignment between the University's values and actions
What are the qualifications of the Ombudspersons?
How is the Staff Ombuds Office different from Human Resources?
The most significant differences between these functions are based on their informal or formal role within the organization. Human Resources professionals formally assist managers and employees of the University in establishing, following and applying HR-related policies and procedures. They conduct formal investigations as a basis for management action and they can make or modify policy. They accept formal notice on behalf of the University and may be called upon to testify in formal proceedings. As a result, Human Resources professionals cannot always extend complete confidentiality to employees who come forward with problems and concerns. While they strive to ensure fair application of policy, the role and responsibilities of Human Resources staff do not allow for complete neutrality because they are part of the management structure and thus must directly represent and protect the interests of the University.
In contrast, the Staff Ombuds Office functions informally and with complete confidentiality to assist visitors with their work-related concerns and to strategize options to effectively resolve those concerns. The Staff Ombuds Office functions outside the scope of the formal grievance process and other formal proceedings. The Staff Ombuds Office does not conduct formal investigations but may refer employees to campus resources with investigatory powers, including Employee and Labor Relations, Compliance Services, Audit and Advisory Services, or the UC Whistleblower Locally Designated Official. If an employee uses the Staff Ombuds Office, the Ombudsperson will not act as a witness or provide testimony in any type of proceeding, performance review, or process. Additionally, the Staff Ombuds Office does not accept notice on behalf of the University, nor does the office keep formal records. While the Staff Ombuds Office can and does make recommendations regarding the establishment and revision of policies, the Staff Ombuds Office plays no formal role in enforcing or implementing policy.
How is the Staff Ombuds Office different from Employee Assistance?
Employee Assistance is a part of Be Well At Work, a branch of the University Health Services, providing free, confidential counseling and referral for UC Berkeley faculty and staff. It is also available for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory employees. Employee Assistance is staffed by licensed social workers and psychologists. In contrast, the Staff Ombuds Office is staffed by organizational ombudspersons with extensive specialized training, expertise and experience in conflict management and alternative dispute resolution.
Employee Assistance offers assistance with a range of issues, including:
- Child and teenager problems
- Couples and marital issues
- Work related stress
- Elder and dependent adult care
- Depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems
- Grief and loss
- Alcohol, drug and other addictions
In addition to services for individuals, Employee Assistance also provides free and confidential consultation and training services for faculty and staff management and campus administration related to behavioral health problems, such as mental illness, chemical dependency, interpersonal problems, employee deaths, threats of violence, work stress and change management, etc., that impact workplace functioning.
Although some issues handled by Employee Assistance and the Staff Ombuds Office may overlap, ombudspersons provide conflict resolution approaches to workplace concerns and problems. Employee Assistance staff generally provide assistance with personal issues, such as stress, health concerns, substance abuse, anger management, or family concerns that may be affecting job performance.
Where else can I get help with a work-related problem?
There are a number of departments and offices on campus designed to assist employees with their work-related concerns. Please see the resources page for further information.
Can you help me if I'm in a union?
The Staff Ombuds Office has limitations when working with union-covered/represented staff. We are able to assist with any concerns that lie outside of the exclusive bargaining rights of your union contract. If you have questions about how we can help, please give us a call.
From the Declaration of Best Practices for University of California Ombuds Offices:
The Ombuds Offices do not address any issues arising under a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”), unless allowed by specific language in the CBA or by ad hoc agreement. Ombuds nevertheless retain the authority to decline to be involved in any individual case. This means that while the Ombuds Offices may provide services to union members, those services do not include addressing issues that are covered in the CBA, including, but not limited to, issues such as grievable claims for termination of employment or formal discipline. In those cases, the Ombuds Offices refer these employees to the CBAs and their union representatives. Declaration of Best Practices for University of California Ombuds Offices page 6 Ombuds do not represent employees or serve as advocates. The Ombuds Offices may work with union members regarding all issues not covered by the contracts, such as communication or workstyle issues.
What is mediation?
Mediation is a voluntary conflict resolution process by which the participants, together with the assistance of the ombudsperson, discuss issues of mutual concern to develop options, consider alternatives, and reach a consensual agreement that addresses both participants' needs and interests.
What types of cases are suitable for mediation?
Many types of work related conflicts are appropriate for mediation, including peer-to-peer conflicts, supervisor-supervisee conflicts, and conflicts between faculty and staff.
Is mediation mandatory?
No. Participation in mediation is voluntary and cannot be mandated by any individual or office on campus.
Who decides if mediation is appropriate for a particular conflict?
In consultation with the parties, the ombudsperson handling the case will make the final determination whether mediation is the best process for the matter under discussion.
How long does mediation take?
Mediation sessions are scheduled for two hours. Some situations take longer to discuss and resolve than others, therefore with the mutual consent of the parties and the ombudsperson, additional mediation sessions may be scheduled.
Is a written agreement drafted at the conclusion of the mediation?
No. The Staff Ombuds Office does not draft written agreements at the conclusion of the mediation process. However, if a mutual understanding is reached between the parties, the ombudsperson will work with both parties to craft a verbal agreement that they understand and commit to carrying out.