By Luke Lara, Ed.D.
A version of this article was published for my college union’s newsletter as “Reflections in my First Year as Ombudsperson.”
People First: A Guiding Philosophy
I recently read an article about how employees are increasingly seeking personal value and purpose at work. It made me reflect on my 16+ years as an employee at my community college, and whether I have succeeded in attaining personal value and purpose. The answer depends on the day you ask me. While my college offers an abundance of professional learning and growth opportunities to help me be my best self (purpose and personal value), I do not operate alone or within a vacuum.
I am a human being who needs to work with other human beings. I am a member of a department, a division, a college, and an extended district community. I interact daily with other faculty members, classified professionals, administrators, and students to conduct my work, provide services, and contribute to our institutional mission. I am lucky to work in a department that supports my personal development and values my contributions. However, others may not be so lucky.
I joined my college’s full-time faculty union as the Ombudsperson because I wanted to serve my peers. In this role, I help other full-time faculty resolve issues from a neutral, independent perspective. I have a counseling background and am accustomed to helping others navigate tricky situations. In addition, I received mediation training to improve my ability to facilitate difficult conversations. In my first year, I have assisted over 17 faculty by supporting and representing them through investigations, listening to their concerns, facilitating conversations with peers, and providing guidance and resources. One of the most common conversations I have is with faculty who believe they are being treated poorly by their supervisors and/or their faculty peers. Keeping in mind that the Omsbudperson must maintain strict confidentiality, I aim to share general guidance that could serve as a gentle reminder for all of us to be kinder to one another, which is based on a “people first” approach that prioritizes people’s wellbeing.
Institutional Code of Conduct
When issues arise that meet the board policy definitions of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, the institution is obligated to investigate. The full-time faculty union is there to represent faculty to ensure rights and due process are granted and upheld. Unfortunately, I have found that there are many behaviors that our colleagues engage in that do not rise to those definitions yet cause much grief and turmoil for the faculty complainant.
Many institutions of higher education have an institutional code of ethics, which provides a foundation for expected behaviors that promote a climate that enhances the worth, dignity, potential, and uniqueness of everyone within the college community. These codes of ethics often outline expectations to maintaining effective working relationships and promoting an environment of collegiality. Everyone has a responsibility, as colleagues and supervisors, to adhere to the principles outlined in the institution’s code of ethics. The advice in the next section applies to all parties involved in a situation (e.g., complainants and respondents).
Six Tips for Effective Working Relationships
Human relationships take a tremendous, conscious effort to develop and sustain. Any important relationship will have tension. Conflicts often arise when there is a difference in perception, beliefs, and/or values. As we strive for diversity, there will be natural tension. It is when this tension goes unaddressed for a long period of time that an uncomfortable situation becomes unbearable. The following are tips for establishing, building, maintaining, and repairing effective working relationships, will help you avoid the unbearable:
- Assume nothing, communicate everything: It is easy to get caught up in our egos and get lost in our expertise. Why not? We are discipline experts. The climate in academia perpetuates this myth and doesn’t allow us to be vulnerable and truly develop community. A simple rule is to assume nothing and to communicate everything. For example, when interacting with your department colleagues, establish guidelines for how you will engage each other by developing them collaboratively as a group.
- Call-in: Lean into that natural tension and address issues immediately. Use a call-in approach by asking clarifying questions. For example, if a colleague made a comment that seemed to be a microaggression, ask: “Can you clarify what you meant by…” This gives the other person an opportunity to apologize or clarify what they really meant. This approach requires curiosity and follows the “assume nothing, communicate everything” guideline.
- Use I Feel Statements: “I feel” statements communicate how you feel to help minimize the possibility of defensiveness and conflict in conversations. The statement begins with “I feel_______,” which helps the listener focus on you, rather than themselves. The second part of the statement connects the feeling to an issue, “I feel _______, when _______.” The last part of the statement includes a desired solution, “I would like______.”
- For instance, if you have a scheduling conflict with your supervisor you may say, “I felt like my needs were disregarded, when I was denied my request for teaching this class online. I would like some guidance from you on how to arrange my schedule so that I can better balance my home situation and work, while also meeting the needs of our department.”
- Take a step back: Honestly, sometimes it’s not necessary to engage in a difficult conversation. Take a step back and observe how you reacted to a particular behavior or comment someone made. What was your reaction about? If it was a strong reaction, it may have roots in something else. While this does not excuse the behavior or comment that this person made, it does point to a deeper issue you may want to explore individually before you engage with or call-in the other person. You may benefit from talking about your reaction with a third party to get some perspective and clarity before moving forward.
- Be aware of power dynamics and potential bias: Power dynamics underlie many of the issues I have encountered. The most obvious power dynamic is based on roles (dean, chair, department member). Other power imbalances exist between classifications (faculty, classified professionals, students). Less obvious are the power imbalances based on characteristics and identity (gender, race, ethnicity, etc.). It is important to acknowledge power imbalances and whether implicit bias is at play. Take a step back and check yourself with the following questions:
- “Is there a power imbalance in this situation?”
- “Do I react the same way to this person as I do to others in similar situations?”
- “What biases do I have?”
- “How might my biases contribute to my thoughts and reactions to my colleague?”
- The only person you can change is yourself: Through my counselor training, I learned a valuable life lesson. In both personal and work relationships, I often found myself expecting other people to change for me to feel comfortable in the relationship. Once I learned I had agency and could make choices for myself, I was empowered to change myself. I gave myself permission to reframe issues, forgive others if needed, and let go of what didn’t benefit me any longer. When I changed, I found others reacted to me differently and indirectly changed behavior in other people. Ask yourself the following questions, “Is this behavior/thought/emotion working for me?” or “Is this behavior/thought/emotion still benefiting me?” If the answer is no, then you can choose to let it go. What does it mean to let it go? How does it reframe your thoughts and feelings about the situation? Allow yourself to make mistakes and to grow as a human being.
While the tips above seem to place the heavy lifting on relationship building on the complainant, this advice applies to both the respondent and complainant. As the saying goes, “It takes two to tango.” Everyone is accountable to each other.
I hope this article is helpful in dealing with colleague and supervisor relations, but more importantly, let this article be a reminder to everyone to be kinder to one another. Listen to your colleagues when they call you in. Be open to feedback when you are a supervisor. Own your part in an issue and be accountable to seeking solutions together. If you take a people first approach, being kind is easy. Everyone is trying to seek purpose and value in their employment.