UTC Faculty Ombudsperson Questions and Answers
What is an Ombudsperson?
Ombudspersons facilitate the resolution of conflict. They promote fair practices, respect between parties, effective communication, cooperation, and equity and civility in academic and work environments. They may serve a fact-finding function or offer advice as an option for consideration by conflicting parties. They do not give formal opinions or make formal or binding recommendations, do not serve as advocates for any person and do not decide what the outcome of a dispute should be. Ombudspersons strive for understanding by parties, respectful treatment, resolution of all concerns, and development of a clear and mutually acceptable action plan.
The four pillars of an ombuds office are independence, neutrality, confidentiality and informality. An ombudsperson is as independent in structure, function, and appearance as much as is possible within an institution. He or she operates autonomously as a neutral party, remaining unaligned and impartial (these pillars are drawn from the http://www.ombudsassociation.org/ethics/)
The ombudsperson maintains confidentiality to the fullest extent possible and avoids disclosing communications without permission to do so (See below for further discussion of confidentiality). The ombudsperson serves an informal role and does not participate in any formal adjudicatory or administrative procedures on behalf of any concerns brought to her or his attention.
What Services Do Ombudspersons Provide?
Private, Confidential Consultation
Parties can safely express their issues, and their feelings about these issues, to the ombudsperson who will listen actively, facilitate reflective thinking, clarify facts and assumptions, and assist the faculty member in exploring options for resolving their concerns and determining an action plan to achieve an acceptable outcome.
The ombudsperson may gather information on behalf of a faculty member, with or without keeping the person’s identity anonymous, through face-to-face meetings, email or phone contact; may serve as liaison between faculty, and between faculty and administrators, directly involved in a dispute, assisting them in exploring issues, understanding various perspectives, and developing a mutually acceptable outcome.
The ombudsperson may facilitate an informal process that assists parties to resolve their concerns in a mutually acceptable way. When mediation is undertaken, an Agreement to Mediate form is signed before the parties begin to discuss their concerns. In the next stage of the process, information is shared and issues are discussed. Options are then developed and evaluated before decisions are made about how things can best be worked out for the future. A mediated agreement may be signed which outlines plans for the future, and a follow-up meeting is often scheduled to assess how the plan is working and to modify the agreement if desired. Currently, the UTC Ombudsperson is a Rule 31 Mediator in Tennessee.
Who is Eligible for Faculty Ombuds Services?
Any faculty member or administrator may request the services of a faculty ombudsperson. The intent is for faculty or administrators to seek ombuds services as a first-response, instead of, or prior to, filing a formal complaint or grievance. Seeking ombuds services in no way changes or eliminates any other formal options available to faculty or administrators for resolving a conflict.
How Do I Seek the Services of the Ombudsperson?
Faculty or administrators seeking ombuds services may call Dr. Joanie Sompayrac at 423-304-1365 and leave a confidential message if she does not answer. Only a name and contact information are needed.
Additional information may be given when the call is returned. Dr. Sompayrac may also be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Sompayrac will make every effort to keep information about ombuds services confidential as required by the Ombuds Code of Ethics, but efforts to resolve disputes may require some disclosures of information.
How Soon Can I Expect the Ombudsperson to Speak With Me?
In some cases, services are provided during the initial phone contact and no face-to-face meetings are necessary. In other cases, the faculty member or administrator and the ombudsperson make plans how to proceed in gathering more information and/or meeting with others. The involved persons may choose to share written documents with the ombudsperson. If documents are given to the ombudsperson, they will be shared with others only at the direction of the staff member unless required by law or university policy.
Is Information I Share with the Ombudsperson Confidential?
Ombudspersons make every attempt to keep all information in confidence unless the party sharing the information gives permission to disclose it. The ombudsperson will uphold this request except when required by law or university policy to share it. Like other university employees, the ombudsperson remains subject to university policies and laws that may require disclosure of otherwise confidential information in certain circumstances, including: (1) in response to a valid public records act request; (2) when there appears to be imminent risk of serious harm to any person, (3) when required by a court to disclose such information, or (4) when required by university policy, such as required reporting of allegation of illegal activity to an appropriate university official (e.g. reporting illegal harassment or discrimination to the Office of Equity and Inclusion.)
In many situations, an ombudsperson can gather information for a party without revealing his or her identity. This information often can aid in clearly delineating facts and assumptions. In some situations, it is helpful for the ombudsperson to reveal certain kinds of information to others involved in the issue, but this is done only hypothetically or with the permission of the staff member.
Does the University Benefit from the Ombudsperson’s Work?
Administrators can use ombud’s annual reports, along with suggestions from participants in ombud’s services, to improve practices that recruit, retain, and reward excellent staff. Administrators are invited to discuss ombud’s work with the ombudsperson as needed. The ombud’s office is part of a long-range strategy to facilitate better working relations and enhance the experience of the university as a community.