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Support for returning to campus
Employees returning to campus likely have questions on how to figure out their new normal and what that new normal will look like. For employees and managers who are navigating each unique situation, Brenda Berlin, the Stanford University Ombuds, is an important, confidential resource.
Berlin advises being proactive and having important conversations before problems occur, which is where the Ombuds office can help.
She sums up her role as, “I’m the person you can go to when you don’t know where to go, and I can get you where you need to be, help you understand Stanford policies, direct you to appropriate resources and work directly with you to brainstorm ways of managing your issue.”
The Ombuds is confidential and independent.
According to Berlin, the basic function of the Office of the Ombuds is to provide a confidential space for people who are having an issue at the university to privately discuss and think through options for managing their situation. Berlin says she regards her role as one of a thought partner in these conversations and that everything discussed is off the record.
There are four ethical principles that guide the Ombuds Office:
- Independence: Work is independent from any other Stanford office or department.
- Impartiality: The Ombuds is neutral, not an advocate for any party in the dispute and considers the interests and concerns of all parties to create mutual understanding and a resolution.
- Informality: Services are informal. The Ombuds has no formal authority to change decisions or policies at Stanford nor does she conduct formal investigations.
- Confidentiality: The Ombuds will not identify you or discuss your concerns with anyone without your permission, with the exception of preventing imminent physical harm.
Conflict, questions regarding university policy and fairness issues are a few of the concerns the Ombuds addresses.
She frequently meets with staff members who are in conflict, either with a supervisor or another co-worker. A lot of these issues relate to perceptions of fairness, including concerns regarding how someone feels they are being treated or evaluated. Other times issues arise when there is a change in management or job responsibilities. Other common concerns include perceptions regarding a lack of opportunity for advancement, disagreements with a performance appraisal, or with a personnel action, such as termination or discipline. In addition, staff members raise issues related to ethical concerns, Stanford policy violations and discrimination and harassment. As a trained mediator, she mediates disputes between staff or other Stanford community members.
Berlin mentions the stress and trauma of the pandemic have added to workplace conflict and affected social interactions. She adds that there are staff members hired during the pandemic who have yet to meet their co-workers in person and consequently may not have had an opportunity to build rapport and trust. These changes may present new challenges.
The Ombuds helps you think through your options, improve communication and guides you through Stanford’s resources and policies.
Berlin mostly meets one-on-one with people to help them process their situation and evaluate options for managing their issue, and when relevant, help them understand Stanford policies and refer them to other resources at Stanford to support them. This includes helping them think through how they might talk to their manager about some of the issues they’re having and how to more productively approach conversations they expect to be challenging or how to talk with a colleague about a workplace conflict. If it’s appropriate to the situation, she also may mediate the conversation between the two parties.
The Ombuds can also help staff get clarity on university policies, as the university often leaves a lot of discretion to local departments regarding policy implementation, which sometimes causes confusion for the employee.
Conversations within a work group can resolve current conflict and prevent future conflict.
Carson Smith, conflict resolution fellow in Institutional Equity and Access (IE&A), provides peacemaking support, which is a form of community building and conflict resolution that is focused on group conversations.
Community-building is focused on strengthening relationships by discussing shared community and individual values to resolve current conflict and/or prevent future conflict. Groups can set communication guidelines or community expectations, so if there is a dispute, they can look back at what was discussed to resolve the situation.
She also facilitates community talking or listening circles to help communities process specific events and challenges, such as personnel changes or community-wide harm or concerns, to help group members process together, decide on next steps, and explore self-care options and how the community can best support individuals.
Smith notes that having challenging conversations can establish new forms of communications and communication guidelines, which will be helpful as employees return to campus.
When it comes to resolving conflict, listening and understanding are key.
Berlin outlines several important things to do when resolving conflict:
- If possible, listen more than you talk.
- Seek understanding (strive to understand the other person’s perspective).
- Ask questions with genuine curiosity.
- When you can, own your contribution to the problem.
- Be respectful and express your views and feelings safely (using “I statements”).
- Understand that the harm you are experiencing doesn’t necessarily equate to the other person’s intentions.
“The great thing about conflict is that if you successfully work through it, it can strengthen a relationship. If we challenge ourselves to respectfully engage in dialogue around conflict, pledge to listen to one another and strive to understand each other’s experiences and needs, then we can work toward a better understanding of one another, build trust and have better skills to manage future conflicts.”