A lot of rueful humor involves conflicts on the job. Conflicts between employees and supervisors, other employees, clients, vendors, conflicts that make the workplace difficult. During the last few decades, conflicts and conflict resolution within companies, non-profit institutions (like universities) and other organizations has become a subject of study in social science and business.
About Conflict Resolution
In 2010, Entrepreneur Magazine reported that a study concluded that on average, a U. S. employee spent 2.8 hours a week dealing with workplace conflicts in 2008. Outside of the estimated $ 359 billion in wages spent on drama, conflict increased absenteeism, project failure, and attrition.
The pass-the-buck school may be tempted to blame employees or random bad apples, but as the business consultant W. Edwards Deming observed, when problems are endemic in a system, the problem is the system. The study above listed main causes of conflicts, starting with personality and stress, followed by heavy workloads and inadequate resources, poor leadership, and other managerial problems.
One might start by addressing causes of stress, reducing workloads, increasing resources, improving leadership, etc., but the preferred approach appears to be conflict resolution. Managers or other designated employees may be trained in conflict resolution, and systems to resolve conflicts can be established. Many of these systems rely on lowering the emotional temperature, repairing communication, establishing a common ground, and building from there.
Consider how we handle controversies. One might hold forensic debates, in which the valid argument is supposed to win. But even here, one must understand opposing arguments: from Aristotle's Rhetoric (Book I): "... we must be able to employ persuasion, just as strict reasoning can be employed, on opposite sides of a question, not in order that we may in practice employ it in both ways (for we must not make people believe what is wrong), but in order that we may see clearly what the facts are..." One must check one's facts and one's arguments.
And if the goal is managing or reducing conflict, the psychologist Carl Rogers went further, proposing that a combatant should try to compose their opponent's argument objectively and sympathetically as part of the effort to find a common ground.
As businesses and organizations recognized the cost of strife, conflict resolution became a priority. And one way to deal with strife is to get an ombudsman.
The Ombudsman's Office
According to Merriam-Webster, an ombudsman is "...a person (such as a government official or an employee) who investigates complaints and tries to deal with problems fairly." (As we shall see, Wikipedia's definition of an ombudsman as "... a designated neutral or impartial dispute resolution practitioner whose major function is to provide independent, impartial, confidential and informal assistance to managers and employees, clients and/or other stakeholders of a corporation, university, non-governmental organization, governmental agency or other entity" is probably more accurate.)
Ombudsman-like officials have been around for millennia, but the idea of a quasi-independent specialist in conflict resolution seems to be relatively recent. For example, the word "ombudsman" does not appear in either of the two great dictionaries of the Twentieth century, Webster's International Dictionary (Second Edition of 1934) or the Oxford English Dictionary (as of 1971). But the word is in all the dictionaries now.
According to Charles Howard, universities started setting up ombudsman offices during the 1960s, primarily for students. The 1970 Report of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest said, "The ombudsman is an individual who acts as a mediator and fact-finder for students, faculty members, and administrators. To be successful, the ombudsman must have both great autonomy and the support of the university president."
Several years ago, USF created a Student Ombuds Office, and there are now ombuds offices on the St. Petersburg and (for students) Sarasota / Manatee campuses. Then this year, USF launched a USF System Ombuds Office for faculty, staff and administrators under the direction of Steve Prevaux, a full member of the International Ombudsman Association (IOA), and who is a certified mediator with the Florida Supreme Court.
The USF Ombuds Office offers assistance for employees in conflicts with management, with colleagues, and with students. The ombudsman can listen and analyze conflicts, provide strategies and options, mediate (if both parties agree) and provide training on conflict resolution, and make referrals and recommendations. The USF Ombuds operates under the IOA Code of Ethics, which concerns the independence, neutrality / impartiality, confidentiality, and informality of the process.
"Good employees want the problem fixed. If it isn't fixed, it festers," said Prevaux, formerly USF's General Counsel. The office was launched in February, and already has had about 150 visitors. The office can involve multiple parties at the request of the visitor, but only if the visitor so desires: "trust is credibility over time."
The USF Ombuds Office aims to help "...our colleagues to align their interests and abilities with the performance outcomes that they want in the workplace," said Prevaux. Such soft skills are becoming increasingly important, and Prevaux noted that three fourths of the members of the American Association of Universities have ombudsman offices (USF has long aspired to join the AAU, which includes leading research institutions).
Such ombuds offices are part of the Alternative Dispute Resolution movement, which is a route for resolving conflicts short of litigation. However, it often does not have the force of litigation, and the USF Ombuds Office does not make binding decisions or formal findings, provide legal advice, participate in grievances or act as an advocate. Sometimes there is no substitute for a formal process, like the grievance process available to UFF members. On the other hand, UFF's grievance process only deals with contract violations, while the USF Ombuds Office can deal with a wider range of ills.