In 1967, Berkeley became the first UC campus to create an ombuds office. But it wasn’t until this year — Thursday (Oct. 11), to be exact — that the experts in dispute resolution received national recognition as part of the inaugural Ombuds Day.
As confidential, impartial, and independent conflict management professionals, ombuds offer services designed to aid problem solving, the development of options, and reducing the human and organizational costs of conflict. Ombuds work to informally address or resolve individual and systemic issues outside of and complementary to formal channels such as litigation, grievances, equal employment opportunity complaints, and more.
Berkeley News caught up with Sara Thacker, director of the Staff Ombuds Office and Marcia Riley, director of the Student Ombuds Office, to learn more about a profession that’s been around for centuries, yet remains pretty obscure.
Of all the jobs on campus, why did you take this one?
Thacker: I wouldn’t have considered any other job. Twenty years ago, I started my career in conflict resolution by resolving disputes in what I found to be one of the least productive and efficient ways. I was an attorney, now a recovered attorney.
And after five years of litigating cases — filing motions and legal briefs, taking depositions, engaging in expensive discovery — I thought there must be a better way.
That’s when I transitioned to mediation. During the next four years, I mediated cases at the (Washington) D.C. Office of Human Rights and the EEOC. I also taught mediation and conflict resolution at Georgetown University. During this time I discovered the power — or the magic — of mediation, really seeing how rewarding it is to help two people overcome and understand their differences to find a mutually agreeable solution.
Throughout my time at Berkeley, I have seen how there can be tremendous opportunity in conflict, opportunity to improve communication, to increase understanding and to enhance the way we work together.
Riley: During my time at Cal, I have had many different roles. This job combined many of my favorite aspects of being on campus. I have direct contact with students every day while still serving in a leadership role; I feel challenged and am learning new things all the time; I feel rewarded by the work that I do in having a positive and direct impact on students experiences with the campus.
What is the most purposeful part of your work?
Riley: In providing a confidential and neutral space for students, postdocs and staff/faculty (dealing with difficult student situations), my main goal is to make visitors — people seeking help — feel safe, heard and respected while offering greater perspective and options for resolving their issues. I want to empower our visitors with information so that they can make the best choice for themselves. I also think a critical part of the work is the coaching on conflict and communication.
Thacker: Making a difference in someone’s life. We often spend more time at work than we do with our own family members, so it’s incredibly meaningful when we can help someone create a strategy to improve their work life and help them become unstuck by exploring options and possibilities they had not considered before.
Assuming no two days are alike for you, tell us how they differ
Thacker: Our work varies depending on whether we are addressing conflict at an individual or a systemic level.
Depending on the day, I may be helping employees create strategies for how to have a difficult conversation with a manager or co-worker, how to respond to a challenging email, how to improve collaboration within or across departments, how to request a salary increase, how to address uncivil, unprofessional or even abusive conduct at work, how to handle an ethical dilemma, how to navigate in a reorganized unit, how to obtain greater clarity about job responsibilities and roles, and many other issues.
At a systemic level, the Staff Ombuds Office analyzes each case to determine whether the source of a particular problem can be found in organizational policies, practices or culture, and provides recommendations for systemic change. Throughout the year, I meet with campus leaders and administrators to provide information about employee concerns and provide recommendations for systemic change.
What about the job keeps you up at night?
Riley: The most difficult cases that really hurt my heart are those that involve students who feel stuck in their issue and unable to move on. We have such bright and incredible students who can and will do so much in their lives, but those who cannot see past their immediate situation are truly limiting their potential and other opportunities. I try hard to encourage visitors that there are many paths to the same goal and sometimes, even greater experiences along the way.
Thacker: Cases that keep me up at night are ones where an employee is experiencing workplace bullying, uncivil behaviors or a hostile work environment, and they feel like their only option is to leave. They don’t trust the formal grievance process; they won’t give me permission to contact a higher-level manager to invite them into the office to explore how to address the problem; they don’t think drawing boundaries or having a direct conversation will help. They fear retaliation, and so they make the decision to leave.
It takes a special person to take on this role. Tell us about yourself and the qualities one needs to do well in this role
Riley: I am a Cal alum and have worked on campus for nearly 30 years. I feel privileged to have grown up in the Bay Area and to be raising my family here, attending Cal games and feeling connected to the community. (My husband is also an alum.)
In my current role, I try to be open minded, not make assumptions, seek the best in everyone and model the approach to conflict as an opportunity shadowed by challenge. Relationships are based on communication and being able to help people enhance their relationships and expand their opportunities through communication (especially in conflict) are a gift I try to share in every interaction with students, staff and faculty.
I am truly grateful for and do not take for granted being able to serve in this role.
Thacker: A successful ombudsperson needs to have the ability to be truly present, to listen without judgement, to express empathy, to demonstrate understanding and to have compassion for suffering.
One of my favorite quotes is from the Sacred Art of Listening by Kay Lindahl. She writes, “One of the greatest gifts we can give each other is the gift of our undivided attention — being present.” It is a great honor to give this gift to others here at Berkeley.
A special celebration is planned Oct. 11 from 8-10:30 a.m. at the Staff Ombuds office, 2350 Bowditch St. Staff are invited to swing by, meet the team and hear more about the important work they do. More details about the event can be found here.