Resolving conflicts at work

Smiling David RaschIf you ever find yourself at Stanford in a difficult dispute — be it academic, interpersonal, or work-related — the Ombuds Office can help. Since May of 2004, David Rasch, PhD (a psychologist and former director of the Stanford Help Center, a counseling service for faculty and staff) has been the University Ombuds. BeWell recently spoke with Dr. Rasch about what the Ombuds office represents and the services it provides at Stanford.

In simple terms, what does the Ombuds office do?

The Ombuds Office is a confidential and neutral resource available to all faculty, staff and students at Stanford. As the Ombuds, I assist people with a wide range of issues, including workplace concerns, academic disputes, breaches of university policy and procedures, disrespectful treatment, ethical concerns, interpersonal conflict, abuses of power, harassment, and bureaucratic complications. The Ombuds Office is a place where members of the Stanford community may safely and confidentially explore their concerns and consider their options.

How is your office different from HR when it comes to conflict management?

The Ombuds Office is different from HR and most other offices within the university in that it is not an office of notice. This means I am not obligated to report to the university about what I discuss with faculty, staff and students — including sexual harassment. The meetings are confidential, with the exception of situations in which I am made aware of a threat to someone's personal safety. Often those who visit the office will use it as an opportunity to safely explore their options while deciding how they want to handle their situation.

What types of issues do you handle?

One of the things I enjoy about the ombuds position is the wide variety of issues people bring to the office. It's not boring. Undergraduate students are often concerned about a grade they received, their academic standing, and issues related to fees and housing. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows will come in to discuss problems with their advisors, since that relationship has such profound implications on their professional future. Staff will frequently come in to discuss a performance appraisal they disagree with, an interpersonal conflict with a supervisor or colleague, or issues related to discipline or termination. Faculty concerns include promotion decisions, conflicts with colleagues, authorship disputes, and difficult student issues.

When would someone contact your office?

Members of the Stanford community may contact the Ombuds Office at any time — whether it is to discuss and think through an issue that is looming on the horizon, to seek advice during a stressful situation, or to look at options in the aftermath of an experience that feels unresolved. Usually, but not always, people have been dealing with their problems for a while and have already attempted to resolve an issue on their own before they bring it to the ombuds.

What words of advice would you offer our readers about resolving conflicts?

I have had the opportunity to listen to hundreds of stories regarding disputes both large and small. I am impressed at how important it is that conflicts be resolved as effectively and promptly as possible, because the personal and institutional costs of unresolved conflict are so great. Disagreements that involve someone's professional future, academic career, paycheck, or workplace relationships have a profound impact on health and well-being, and I'm glad to be in a position where I can make a contribution. I enjoy the role, but I've had to learn to cope with one personally challenging aspect of being ombuds that arises when cases are finishing up. As they are saying goodbye, people often thank me, then tell me they hope they never have to see me again.

The Ombuds Office is located at Mariposa House, 585 Capistrano Way, 2nd flr, Rm. 210. Dr. Rasch can be reached at (650) 723-3682 or