Nearly 400 higher education institutions in the U.S. and Canada have an ombuds on campus. These officials typically offer guidance and mediation for small disputes among employees.
For Diane Tobin, the position also promotes the mission of making UofL a great place to work.
Tobin has served as UofL’s ombuds since June, reporting to the provost. She previously served as special assistant to the president of the Kentucky Center and spent eight years as a faculty member at Spalding University. Her biggest skillset, she says, is solving problems.
This makes her the perfect fit for the ombuds office. The goal of the office is to provide dispute resolution services for faculty and staff. Her primary office is on the Belknap, but she serves all three campuses and offers office hours by appointment in the Kornhauser Library on the HSC campus. She also maintains that her availability is 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It is important for me to take calls at any time. Someone on the custodial staff, for example, might need me at 6 a.m. I can even meet off campus,” she said.
Such access is necessary for her to achieve her objectives, which are essentially to diffuse grievances before they escalate and to provide tools to employees to resolve any problems that may arise in the future.
“My job is to find out what the issue is and provide options to solve them. Most people come up with their own solutions,” Tobin said. “Many people just need someone to talk to. I’m very sensitive to those needs. If they take the time to call, their issue is legitimate.”
Some employees might be reluctant to bring up a work issue with a third party. Tobin understands such hesitation. However, she insists that the process is informal, independent, confidential and neutral.
“I don’t have skin in anyone’s game. I don’t advocate for anyone,” Tobin said. “This allows me to help decide on the best options.”
Sessions with Tobin are completely confidential and her isolated office space clearly supports that. There are two exceptions to disclosures, however: If she believes an employee is going to do harm to themselves or others, or if the employee gives her permission for disclosure.
Per the Redbook, faculty members are required to visit the ombuds office on a type one complaint – which is the least serious level.
Tobin is also required to provide a periodic report of themes that emerge from her work.
“It’s good for upper administration to know what’s going on with our employees,” she said, adding that stagnant compensation has been the most frequent grievance thus far.
“The circumstances are terrible, but we don’t have a lot of money right now,” Tobin said. “What we do have is a fabulous president who I have no doubt will correct this. But it’s going to take some time.”
Tobin is optimistic, however, because most employees aren’t driven by money as much as they are work environment or recognition.
“Research shows that people stay in their jobs because they’re happy, not because they’re getting paid a lot,” she said. “Knowing that informs my job.”
If an issue involves other employees, Tobin tries to bring them in for a group meeting.
“My job is for them to solve their own disputes and that’s easier to do when everyone gets to share their perspective,” Tobin said. “It can be very helpful to go over processes to get them to come to the best resolution.”
One department who used her services, for example, now takes a 5-minute break every day in order to take the time to connect with each other. Members of the group have told Tobin that this simple solution has been very helpful in creating synergy.
Sometimes, however, there’s nothing she can do to prevent a situation from escalating. If that’s the case, she can either reference the employee to HR or to the faculty or staff grievance officer directly. The grievance process is more formal than a visit to the ombuds.
“It is on the record, there are committees and legal gets involved. It requires a lot of paperwork and time and money,” Tobin said. “My job is to get people to take a look and see if there are other ways to solve their issues more informally.”
The entire ecosystem at UofL is collaborative and efficient, she adds.
“I am really impressed with HR and the grievance officers. They are dedicated and knowledgeable and they all want to make this the absolute best place to work,” Tobin said. “That’s why we have our processes set up the way we do.”
Tobin said her best case scenario is if she works herself out of a job because everyone’s happy. She also knows that will likely never happen because human nature is a tricky thing.
“I will just continue to help the people who need me to help them and try to make the workplace the best it can be on every single level,” she said.