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Butting Heads: Conflict Resolution for Postdocs, Part II

In Part I, we talked generally about the avenues open to postdocs to deal with workplace problems. In this installment, we'll talk about a widely available resource that can help postdocs, as well as other members of the research community, deal with conflict at an informal stage--the ombudsman.

Many people may vaguely remember hearing about the ombudsman during an orientation or were given a pamphlet or brochure about it. But what is an ombudsman? An ombudsman is a designated neutral, confidential, nonjudgmental, independent person that can help you figure out how to deal with a problem. An ombudsman will not take sides or tell you what to do. Ombudsmen usually don't take notes or keep records on your visit and don't testify at hearings concerning a dispute. An ombudsman will listen to you, ask a lot of questions, talk out the problem, give feedback, brainstorm what might be done next, and consider the consequences of various courses of action. If necessary, an ombudsman can act as a mediator or perform shuttle diplomacy to help resolve a dispute.

Ombudsmen can have a variety of backgrounds, including research, law, counseling, and negotiation and conflict resolution. Ombudsmen can help with any issue, but the usual suspects include disputes over authorship or intellectual property, differing expectations from the mentor and postdoc, ethical issues, misconduct, harassment, and discrimination. Ombudsmen can help deal with problems at any stage, whether a person needs help figuring out how to approach a person or problem if they haven't already, or if they've already tried to deal with the situation to no avail.

"It's an amazing process," says Linda Wilcox, who has been Ombudsperson for Harvard Medical School, Dental School, and School of Public Health for the last decade. "People come in feeling a great deal of despair. They have a problem and they don't know what to do about it. By talking it out, sometimes it doesn't seem so gigantic." (See, for example, Wilcox's perspective on authorship in the Next Wave's The Ethics of Authorship feature.)

According to the University and College Ombuds Association, "ombuds" means "the people's representative, agent, attorney, solicitor, deputy, proxy, or delegate" in Swedish. As might be expected, "man" means "male" in Swedish, which is often dropped altogether or substituted with the more gender-neutral "person." In 1809, the Swedish parliament appointed the first ombudsman to resolve difficult problems after their king was abducted. Ombuds offices became more common at U.S. universities in the 1960s and 1970s, during the period of campus unrest, as a "safe" place to discuss concerns and file complaints. Over 200 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada are now estimated to have ombuds offices.

Many governments in developing countries also have ombuds offices to protect and promote human rights. In developed countries, both the public and private sectors often have ombuds offices. For example, the

UK National Health Service has an ombuds office to file complaints about service. At one time, Pharmacia & Upjohn, a pharmaceutical company in Kalamazoo, Michigan, had an ombudsperson, but the position was discontinued after Upjohn merged with Pharmacia, according to Elizabeth Clark, who retired after being the ombudsperson there for 12 years. Clark says that ombuds are usually found at companies that don't have unionized workers and would serve only salaried employees.

NIH Ombudsman Howard Gadlin says that postdocs can be especially reluctant to come forward, even if they have a strong case. His office, which serves the 20,000 people at the institute, often coaches people on how they can bring up complex or difficult issues in a nonadversarial way. For example, they can look at a letter that a person is proposing to send out and suggest removing "toxic language" or suggest language that would be less likely to lead to defensiveness or anger. "There are a surprising number of situations, when handled tactfully, can actually be resolved successfully without all the stir of bringing a charge or filing a grievance," he says, and about 70% of issues brought to his office are successfully resolved. Gadlin is also working on developing guidelines for questions that postdocs and mentors should ask each other before agreeing to work together, beyond just their research interests. He would like to see these be the foundation for "partnering agreements," similar to prenuptial agreements, which would spell out what the parties expect from each other, how they'll interact, and how they'll resolve conflicts if they arise.

David Levine has been the ombudsman for the Department of Medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the largest department in the medical school, for the past 5 years. The ombuds office was created by the faculty after the fellows said that current avenues weren't entirely meeting their needs, but it is open to everyone, including faculty. Levine thinks the office has been a great help in giving fellows options to resolve conflicts besides filing a formal complaint, swallowing their anger, or leaving. "People know that if I get involved, other people are going to have to take them very seriously. I think these programs are tremendously needed" throughout the medical school, he says. In addition to helping to resolve conflicts, Levine's office also sets up career development seminars, educational opportunities, and periodically evaluates the fellows program.

Merle Waxman, ombudsperson and director of the Office for Women in Medicine at Yale Medical School, says that a lot of problems stem from miscommunication, and in particular, e-mail often gets people into trouble. It's easy to dash off an angry e-mail, or sometimes people are mistakenly copied on messages and see things they weren't supposed to see. As an ombudsperson, she's found that it's important to gain the confidence of the people she works with and show that she truly doesn't take sides in a dispute. Although people sometimes get defensive, "in the end people are willing to go through a mediation knowing that it's not a formal grievance procedure," she says. "It's fairer and won't escalate the situation."

Unlike other institutions, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory doesn't have a particular ombudsperson that everyone can go to. Instead, there are about 100 part-time ombuds for about 8000 staff members, which includes postdocs. Most ombuds are employees with a regular job and are not managers or supervisors, according to Barbara Herron, a computer scientist who has been one of about 15 ombuds within the Computation Directorate for the past 8 years. The ombuds get formal training, and many do it because they enjoy helping other people, she says. Often, they find that they've been unofficially serving as an ombuds anyway. The Chemistry and Materials Science Directorate has ombuds specifically for postdocs, whose job is essentially the same as the employee ombuds, but they also regularly touch base with postdocs to see how they're doing.

At Stanford, postdoc Robert Busch started a peer-counseling group for fellow postdocs (see the 'counseling' link on the SUPD website) a few years ago after hearing various kinds of "horror stories" about the way that people were being treated in their labs. Although Stanford has ombudsmen both for the university and the medical school, Busch thinks that fellow postdocs are more tuned in to the isolation and disempowerment many postdocs feel. "It's sort of a different perspective because we've been there," he says. He sees the counseling group as an advocate for the postdoc, rather than a neutral mediator, and Stanford's administration and Ombuds offices are aware of and supportive of their efforts. The group considers itself another resource for postdocs who have conflicts and refers postdocs to the Ombuds office when necessary. Although members of the counseling group don't have formal training in conflict resolution, "an open heart and the willingness to help, listen, and think go a long way," Busch says. Postdocs who come to the group are kept anonymous, and there are currently five postdocs actively involved in counseling, most of whom are doing it simply because they want to help their fellow postdocs or because they've had their own harrowing experiences, according to Busch.

"These kinds of problems might be expected to arise once in a while," he says. "The important thing is to have mechanisms in place to deal with them."