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Staff Ombudsperson FAQ

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 is possible within an institution. She operates autonomously as a designated neutral, remaining unaligned and impartial (drawn from International Ombudsman Association Code of Ethics: 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 procedure on behalf of any concerns brought to her attention.

Private Consultation
Parties can safely “vent” their issues to the Ombudsperson who will listen actively, facilitate reflective thinking, clarify facts and assumptions, and assist the staff member in exploring options for resolving their concerns and determining an action plan to achieve an acceptable outcome.

Fact-finding
The Ombudsperson may gather information on behalf of a staff member through face-to-face meetings, email or phone contact; may serve as liaison between people directly involved in a dispute, assisting them in exploring issues, understanding various perspectives, and developing a mutually acceptable outcome.

Problem-solving/Mediation
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 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 will be signed which outlines plans for the future and a follow-up meeting is often scheduled to see how the plan is working and modify the agreement if desired.

Any exempt or non-exempt staff person may request the services of an Ombudsperson. The intent is for staff 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 for resolving a conflict.

Staff persons may call Elaine Wynn at 865-437-9376 (or 865-675-6629) and leave a confidential message on voice mail if there is no answer. Only a name and contact information are needed. Additional information may be given when the call is returned. You may also contact Elaine via email at ewynn2@utk.edu.  However, anyone contacting via email about ombuds services or concerns should provide minimal information, keeping in mind that emails are not confidential.

In some cases, services are provided during the initial phone contact and no face-to-face meetings are necessary. In other cases, the staff member and Ombudsperson make plans how to proceed in gathering more information and/or meeting with others. The staff member 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.

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 Diversity.)

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.

Administrators can use Ombuds Annual reports, along with suggestions from participants in Ombuds’ services, to improve practices that recruit, retain, and reward excellent staff. Administrators are invited to discuss Ombuds work with the Ombudsperson as needed. The Ombuds Office is part of a long-range strategy to facilitate better working relations and enhance the experience of the university as a community.

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