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3Qs: Sounding board

Donna Bishop, professor of criminology and criminal justice, is the new university ombudsperson. In addition to her expertise in juvenile justice, youth policy, and law reform, Bishop also brings strong credentials to the position. For several years, she was affiliated with a crisis center in Florida, where she provided individual, couples and group counseling, as well as conflict resolution, negotiation and crisis intervention. She’s also a member of the International Ombudsman Association. Here, Bishop discusses the role of the ombudsperson and its importance to the University.

Why is it important for Northeastern — or any college or university — to have an ombudsperson? After all, can’t someone discuss workplace issues with a human resources department representative?

Having an ombuds demonstrates an organization’s commitment to the quality of the work environment. It’s also a very cost-effective method to identify and resolve problems within an organization. It provides an opportunity to act on problems early on, in an informal way, before people think about filing formal grievances. We are joining good company — there are many universities around the country that have an established ombuds program. Locally, they include Harvard, MIT, BU and UMass.

One of the most important things about an ombuds is that he or she is independent. The ombuds is not part of the management structure of the university, so when people come to talk to me, nothing is put on the record. For a lot of people, that’s important. They just want kind of a sounding board.

The ombuds is also in a position to give upward feedback to the organization about recurring issues — in a general way, without mentioning any names or situations — that could steer the organization toward considering new policies, procedures or practices.

What are other important aspects to the ombudsperson’s role?

Impartiality is key. I am NOT an advocate for a particular person who comes to see me. Rather, I am an advocate for fairness in the workplace.

Another key part of my role is confidentiality. Nothing that people share with me — short of threatening to harm themselves or others — gets reported to anyone. They can talk to me without fear of retaliation.

What more can you do as an ombudsperson besides providing a sounding board?

One example is that I can do something called shuttle diplomacy. I can talk to one party and then, with their permission, speak to another party with whom they’re having some difficulty. Then I can carry the second party’s thoughts back to the first party. Or, I can sit as a neutral between the two of them as they discuss an issue in person.

Talking with an ombuds can help empower individuals to solve problems themselves. Sometimes people are at a loss — they don’t know what to do, or what their resources are. The University has resources I can point them to that may help them resolve an issue. Or, I can coach them to have a difficult conversation with someone, or to write a letter to someone. I think, lots of times, people would like to have things resolved in an informal way, without getting into putting things on written record and going through some sort of formal dispute process. Those are difficult things for people to do. This gives people another option for resolving problem situations.

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