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“The Ombudsman is a place to go when you don't know where to go.”

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Published on Tuesday, 16 March 2021

One of our most important goals is to make the University an even more enjoyable place to work and study. With this in mind, it is key to have the right conflict mitigation services in place so our people know who to turn to in case they experience an issue in the workplace or during their studies. In this interview, Dr. Brent Epperson, the University’s Ombudsman, clarifies the role of an ombudsman, outlines the ways he can offer help to employees and students, and differentiates his role from that of other people-facing departments at the University.

Brent, what is the main role of an Ombudsman? How can an Ombudsman help employees and students?

An ombudsman can help employees and students in many different ways. First of all, we can help guide them through and help them understand university policies and procedures. We also can help make visitors aware of other services that are available to support them in their work and studies. Finally a big part of what we do is informal, appropriate dispute resolution. Simply explained: we help people resolve conflicts with others at the University. We help members of the university community develop stable, supportive, and productive professional relationships.

Are there any professional ethical principles you follow as an ombudsman?

Absolutely. Ombudsmen—sometimes called ombuds or ombudspersons—follow four core principles. It goes without saying that everything that you discuss with an ombudsman is confidential. Nothing I discuss with my clients (or “visitors,” as we often call them in the profession) leaves this room, unless of course there's a threat of harm to self, a threat of harm to someone else, or a written request from the visitor to share or help to clarify information.

Under the principle of impartiality, or “multi-partiality” as I say more often, the Ombudsman doesn’t represent any party involved during a conflict resolution process. The Ombudsman looks at the situation from the outside and tries to help all parties involved find a solution.

The Ombudsman is independent to all bodies within the University. As such, I do not report to any academic faculty or centre, or to the staff or student delegations. I report directly to the Board of Governors. That ensures that there’s no conflict of interest advising any groups of people within the University.

And finally, the accessibility principle ensures that any member of the University community, any students (undergraduates, graduate, or doctoral), and any employee within the University is able to come to the Ombudsman as a visitor and ask for advice or informal conflict resolution services.

Why is it important that students and employees come to you, even if they think that the issue is small?

Early resolution is almost always better than late resolution. I've never seen a conflict resolve because someone ignored it or tried to sweep it under the rug. Generally speaking, if we have a conflict, it's best to try to fix the situation early, before there are hurt feelings and damaged working relationships. At the same time, it’s important to say that the Ombudsman can be a resource to consult at any point in a conflict, no matter how early or how late it is. In general, there are four main methods that we can use for conflict management.

What makes the Ombudsman different from other resources already available at our university, i.e. HR, SEVE? Will you be in tight contact with these?

The various departments and delegations that serve and interact regularly with employees and students - Human Resources, the Student delegation, the Staff delegation, SEVE - they all have incredibly important roles to play in our everyday lives at the University. Their main characteristic is that they have clear rules and formalised rules that they follow. The Ombudsman, on the other hand, is an informal resource. My function is thus parallel to the other departments and compliments them, but the role is separate. If a conflict occurs, I can be consulted at any time in a conflict. People can come to me as an alternative to formal processes with regard to conflicts within a workplace and classroom.

Do you offer online consultation during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Yes, I offer consultation as in-person meetings with proper social distancing and masks, and also online meetings by Teams or Webex.


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