TEDxUCLA 2014: Open 2.0

Ombuds: an emerging resource for organizational conflict


About Tom

Tom has spent the last 12 years working with individuals involved in conflicts, and established the Ombuds Office at Claremont Graduate University. Before becoming an ombuds, Tom was an attorney, representing and counseling clients in matters before state, federal and State Bar courts. Tom trained as a mediator with the L.A. County Bar and served as a court-appointed mediator for the L.A. Superior Court.


Good afternoon, everyone. Can you hear me okay? Okay, good.

As I was thinking about starting my remarks today, I was realizing that I share something in common with the other speakers here and that I am sure that they share with you. And that is that I deal with conflict. We all deal with conflict.

No matter how successful your projects are, how successful your studies are going, no matter how good a job you’re doing at work, you have to deal with conflict within your work group and within your organization. And that’s what I do on a daily basis. I work with people that are dealing with conflict in their organization.

So my role here at UCLA is to serve as the ombudsperson for the Center for Health Sciences, the UCLA Medical Center. I’m part of a four-person office that was started here at UCLA 40 years ago. And yet, as Stefon acknowledges, it’s not a well-known resource. And as I’ll indicate later, it’s not a resource yet that’s well-known across the country, in other sectors of our of our country.

So here’s what I do. I serve as the embedded dispute resolution resource for faculty, staff, and students within the organization. So that means four professional schools, two hospitals, countless research laboratories and clinical practice areas. My work is characterized by four things: it’s confidential, neutral, independent and informal, and I’m available free to anyone who needs to use my service.

This doesn’t sound good to a lot of people. A few years ago, Mental Floss magazine actually thought this sounded terrible and thought that this would, this ought to go on the list with airline counter employee and DMV clerk.

I disagree with that characterization. I find the work engaging, varied and highly rewarding. The people that come to me are appreciative when they’re finished using my services. I will acknowledge that Mental Floss magazine had it correct in this sense: the people that come to see me are experiencing the worst situation that they’ve encountered in their academic or professional lives, and that’s why they’re in my office.

Perhaps the best way for me to explain what I do is to give you an example, a story of a sort of case that might come to me. Now because I’m a confidential resource, this is not an actual case, but this is not far from the sort of thing that will come to me.

And this, this story involves three primary characters. The first, our protagonist, is Gina, a graduate student here at UCLA. She arrived a year ago, new to Los Angeles and to the University of California. And when she arrived, life was great. She had been accepted to the program that she wanted, she had some scholarship aid, she was going to be working on the Ph.D. in the field that she wanted, and she was lucky enough to secure a job in the lab of one of the leaders in her field, Anya, who is a tenured faculty at UCLA.

Anya was going to serve as her advisor and as the person running this laboratory. She’s the principal investigator, a designation that comes along with grant money, and within the university setting, a PI is a coveted title, perhaps as coveted as being a tenured faculty member. Perhaps they even go hand-in-hand.

The third person in our story is a guy named Porter, who is a postdoc. He’s a seventh-year postdoc, which means that his prospects for landing an academic position have really gone downhill, and he’s facing a future of being a senior researcher, not perhaps realizing the dreams that he had hoped for himself. But he holds a valuable position in Anya’s lab, he’s the lab manager. He basically is running the experiments, managing the group of people that are there, ensuring that the things that need to get done get done.

So Gina comes into this lab. She gets to know Anya a little bit better. She starts working with Porter, the lab manager, and things are going well. Over the course of the year, despite the success at work, she starts to have some concerns about whether or not she’s gotten herself into the right field and is now starting to wonder whether or not she should leave UCLA after earning a terminal Master’s. Nonetheless, she continues on with her work and hasn’t expressed this concern to anyone.

About a month ago, Anya takes Porter and Gina to a local conference to provide an update about their research. The three of them make a very successful presentation at the conference. They celebrate by going to dinner that night in their hotel, have a lovely time. Porter has several drinks, unlike the two women, and, but it’s still uneventful.

Now Gina is happy that things are working out well with Anya and Porter, because when she came into the lab, she had heard a lot of bad stories about Porter: whispered comments that he was a bully, people pointing out that the individuals that had left the lab, the grad students, the employees, the researchers who had decided to leave Anya’s lab had done so because they felt forced out by Porter. And actually the people that have left the lab in recent memory have all been women, minorities, and international students. Indeed, Gina’s predecessor was one of those who had felt pressured by Porter to leave. So it’s, she has gone to this conference with some relief, feeling like things are working well.

About two hours after dinner, there’s a pounding at the door. Gina opens it to find a visibly intoxicated Porter standing there, and his first request of her is to come back to his room and have some more drinks. Maybe perhaps have a midnight swim in the hotel pool with him. She rebuffs these requests. He becomes more and more angry and starts to accuse her of falsifying the research data, data that she’s been working on for the past year. In fact, he pointedly accuses her of faking the results in order to gain favor with Anya. Gina manages to finally get him out of the room, close the door, fitful night’s sleep, and she’s really shaken by this experience.

Monday morning, they’re all three back in the lab. Porter seems to have no recollection of the situation. Everything’s fine with him. Things are quiet, but she is very concerned and now is wondering what she can do.

So who can someone like Gina go to? She has a lot of interrelated problems here. From her perspective, the most important issue is the bullying that she has feared and now which appears to be real. But in telling her story, it’s obvious that there are some other issues that are almost as significant and, perhaps from the university’s perspective, these are just as significant. The charges of discrimination, of research misconduct, those are the kind of things that a big university is very worried about and needs to respond to.

Of course, our student Gina is worried about her own academic and professional goals. So what if she goes to some of the typical resources that are available in a big university, at a big organization? Perhaps she would go to the, the union for graduate students and TAs. They’re set up to be her advocate, but they have sort of a limited focus and they have a well-defined contract with the university that gives them certain bases upon which to grieve.

There are offices within the university that are set up to investigate allegations of misconduct. There’s a Title IX prevention office. There is a research misconduct office. There is an office of compliance and discrimination issues. Those offices are willing to do an investigation and fight for the right outcome, but they’re not going to be confidential necessarily. Gina doesn’t have any control over how those processes work, and they may not address the totality of her concerns.

She has some emotional support that’s available. There’s a counseling center, but that’s very limited in its scope. They can’t work with anyone else who may be involved in the situation. They don’t have expertise about the policies and procedures and culture of the university, so they are of limited use. Her friends would certainly be supportive, but they don’t have any expertise in the workings of the university. If they are colleagues that are also friends, a gossiping rumor that could start with them could be very damaging. And certainly her colleagues in the lab don’t have, have a significant conflict of interest in the resolution of the situation.

So who does she turn to? What are her options? She needs someone who can listen to her problems confidentially and not start a process without her consent. She needs someone who will listen to her problems without taking sides. Someone who will be neutral and objective. Someone who has information that will help her in her situation. She needs someone who is independent, someone from outside the lab, someone who doesn’t have a personal conflict of interest in her resolution. She needs someone who’s informal, who isn’t going to begin a process or become involved in the process if she chooses to go into it.

She needs someone confidential, neutral, independent, and informal. These are the core characteristics of an ombuds office.

These are the things that I provide when people come to me with concerns. So I’m going to be able to listen to a student all the way through, hear all of the concerns that she has, help her prioritize the issues, help her figure out which ones she needs to take action on, which ones that she can let go. I’m going to be able to give her information about the way the university works, the culture, the other processes that may apply, other resources that will help her. And I’m going to be able to remain as a resource for her as she moves forward without taking sides. If she needs someone to be an intermediary in a conversation with the P.I. or the lab manager, I would be available to do that. These are the kind of things that an ombudsperson does.

So where do we find ombuds? Well, we find them at lots of big universities. In North America, there are nearly 400 ombuds offices. Most have been in place for less than 20 years. UCLA has been here for over 40. There’s a partial list. All of the UC campuses have one. And in Florida, public statute requires public universities to have ombuds offices in place.

So that’s great, but where else do we see them? Well, let me back up. In addition to this, this service of providing individuals with help on their discrete individual problem, ombuds also acquire a wealth of information about the systemic issues within an organization. Those broad-based concerns that perhaps are not coming to administrators’ attention through regular formal channels. This is another feature of an ombud’s work. We will hear about broad concerns and be able to feed those back to the administrators at the right time.

In Gina’s case, perhaps if she gets the resolution she wants, but the ombudsperson has heard about those other ancillary issues from others in the lab, they can feedback to the P.I. the concerns they’ve heard about the lab manager, perhaps with direct information, perhaps by asking the lab manager if she’s aware of those sort of concerns. There are a lot of ways that ombuds give upward feedback to the appropriate person within the organization.

And the reason that this is valuable for an organization is that no matter how good your your formal processes are, not everyone will use them. A survey shows that the maybe two-thirds of people that know about misconduct will report it. That sounds like a good majority of people that are reporting things, but what about those one-third that have problems that don’t take action, that the that the organization doesn’t know about, that they can’t fix? People don’t leave their jobs because they’re underpaid. They leave their jobs because they’re unhappy with their workplace. So ombuds are a solution to this concern.

Where do we find ombuds? Well as I’ve said, they’re widespread in academia. In fact, I think they’ve reached the tipping point at colleges and universities. They also have become pretty well established within non-governmental organizations. About ten years ago, The United Nations decided to implement an ombuds program and now all the U.N. affiliates have ombuds offices. And many large nonprofits and NGOs have organizational ombuds in place for their employees.

In the federal sector, about 15 years ago there was a study that showed great returns for an ombuds program because it helped agencies work better. Agencies knew about problems, they were able to govern better, they were able to implement programs better. A more recent study found actual cost savings for the federal agencies that did have workplace ADR programs, including ombuds offices. So now in the past few years, we have seen many federal agencies create organizational ombuds programs for their employees, it’s on the range of two or three a year.

The place where ombuds have not yet gained much acceptance is in the private sector. Alternative dispute resolution is a growing phenomenon in companies, and yet that doesn’t include the embrace of organizational ombuds programs. A survey a couple of years ago showed just 14 percent of Fortune 100 companies have a program like this. The companies that do have them tend to be concentrated in health care, the energy sector, and maybe some ancillary companies that have international operations.

The problem with convincing decision makers to implement organizational ombuds programs is that I think the mindset in the private sector is quite different from NGOs and academia. Academics were happy to embrace the holistic benefits of an organizational ombuds and didn’t necessarily need to worry about the financial costs and benefits. However, I think the decision-makers in the private sector really need that and they’re driven by those sort of considerations.

The problem is it’s very difficult to quantify the financial benefits of an organizational ombuds office in the private sector. Companies don’t like to reveal their inner workings, especially the inner workings of how they deal with conflict and how much that costs them.

Fortunately, there was a very recent study that showed some significant returns. Pacifica Human Communications, which is a consulting company that helps set up ADR programs, looked at the benefits of the first year of an ombuds program at Halliburton and they looked to see the costs and benefits of the formal conflict that was avoided, the bad behavior in the workplace that was prevented, and the resulting productivity gains.

Pacifica found a 20-to-1 return on the investment. It cost Halliburton a little more than a million dollars to set up the program, and the return was nearly 25 dollars for each, 25 million dollars. This is the sort of data point that I think decision-makers in the private sector need.

However, to be honest, the legal protections for an ombuds program are vague, poorly defined, and still evolving. So this is a significant drawback for financial decision-makers in the private sector. It’s becoming clear that there are definite benefits, and yet the uncertainties of an ombuds program are perhaps holding some back.

For the future, it depends, the future depends on whether or not organizations will decide to embrace the benefits of an organizational ombuds office and then deal with the legal uncertainties later, or whether they’ll wait and find out what the legal certainties are before they, they take on an ombuds.

Nonetheless, my big question for any leader of an organization, whether it’s in the private sector or the public sector, whether it’s a nonprofit or a for-profit, is this: If your organization has an important mission and values the role of its employees, isn’t it important enough to have an ombuds for your stakeholders? Thank you very much.