Ombuds, Not Mediators or Arbitrators, are the Best Solution for Workplace Bullies

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education caused some consternation among Organizational Ombuds, especially those on college campuses. The piece acknowledged a problem Ombuds know well: "College faculty members who are bullied or abused by coworkers often feel they must either suffer through it or quit." Indeed, the annual conference of the American Association of University Professors featured three sessions devoted to the problem of faculty bullying. What piqued Ombuds was the plan by two companies to offer mediation and arbitration services to colleges as a remedy for bullying.

The American Arbitration Association and the ADR Consortium are planning a campaign to persuade colleges to adopt anti-bullying policies and codes of civility. If adopted by colleges, anti-bullying policies and guidelines would provide incentive for alleged faculty bullies to submit to arbitration or mediation -- services AAA and the ADR Consortium are gearing up to sell. A spokesperson for AAA expressed confidence that outside experts could resolve bullying incidents just as they resolve other workplace disputes. (Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Most colleges already use alternative dispute resolution techniques to address allegations of harassment and discrimination. Three hundred colleges and universities have Ombuds offices and campus Ombuds routinely assist bullied individuals. In 2007, the International Ombudsman Association developed a uniform reporting instrument to classify cases and included a specific category for "Bullying, Mobbing (abusive, threatening, and/or coercive behaviors)." However, the Chronicle Article did not even mention the widespread and on-going efforts by Ombuds to address bulling concerns. But that was not the primary focus of Ombuds that read the article.

Ombuds know that arbitration and mediation are ineffective tools for handling bullies. The prospect of private arbitration as a means of disciplining faculty is extremely unlikely. The arbitration model used by AAA is very different than the disciplinary process in place on most campuses. It's hard to imagine any faculty senate agreeing to abdicate its traditional governance role to an outsider, much less an individual professor agreeing to arbitration after a complaint.

There are at least three reasons why mediation is vastly inferior to the services of an Organizational Ombuds.

Too Little Insight

Outside mediators know too little -- they lack familiarity with the policies, culture and personalities on a particular campus. Ombuds, on the other hand, are part of the organization and know the political dynamics, unwritten rules, and history. These subtle but important factors allow Ombuds to give more strategic advice and craft more effective resolutions. MIT Ombuds Toni Robinson recently addressed the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources and explained that Ombuds are uniquely position to help individuals use leverage to get a resolution and advocate for fair process. (Women in Higher Education.)

Too Late In the Process

Outside mediators come to a conflict too late -- they receive the case only after both parties acknowledge the problem. Ombuds, on the other hand, are available to victims at the first sign of bullying. A recent article by the American Association of Medical Colleges highlighted the decision of MD Anderson to create an Ombuds office to help prevent troubling behavior by listening for and making recommendations on various faculty problems. (AAMC Reporter.)

Too Many Parties

Outside mediators require too many parties -- they begin work only after two parties acknowledge a conflict. Ombuds, on the other hand, are available for consultation by individuals whom may want to address the situation on their own rather in a two-party process. An article by DePaul's Ombuds, Rev. Craig Moussin, for the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities cites the flexibility of Ombuds to offer safe counsel and explore options that serve all parties. (ACCU Update.)

There are many reasons why college administrators should rely on existing Ombuds programs as a tool to address bullying. Nonetheless, the complexity of the problem may make outside arbitration and mediation attractive as the next trend in higher education. In the long run, however, outside neutrals are unlikely to be as effective.

Related Ombuds Blog posts: NYT Career Couch: If Bullied, Visit Ombuds; Expert: Workplace Bullying Should Not Be Mediated; January Meeting of Texas Ombuds Will Highlight Bullying Issues; CUPA-HR Panel Promotes Ombuds as Tool Against Bullying.

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Comment by Tom A. Kosakowski on June 19, 2010 at 8:44am
If you think my position is provocative, read the response of Gary Namie at the Workplace Bullying Institute.

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