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Stanford Report, March 12, 2003

Waxman, McKee consult with faculty and staff to resolve workplace problems Options for conflict resolution help shape a better medical center employee experience


Workplace problems are inevitable. A faculty member might want to discuss a problem with an employee in the lab. Or he or she may be concerned about a financial or research issue or sexual behavior in the workplace. Or perhaps a conflict between two people has resulted in arguments over which figures to use in a research paper.

School of Medicine faculty and staff have several resources available to help them resolve problems. Martha McKee, ombudsperson at the medical school, and Ellen Waxman, the recently appointed director of faculty relations, are among the resources available to those affiliated with the School of Medicine.

Ellen Waxman (left) and Martha McKee have complementary roles in the medical center. While some of their duties overlap, the differences in their roles, for example with regard to confidentiality, are substantial. Photo: Visual Arts Services

Waxman served as the School of Medicine ombudsperson from 1995-96. Since then, she has served as the ombudsperson for the university. Her newest position was created to help the dean’s office address faculty issues, investigate faculty matters and promote career development and training for faculty.

Although they have similar backgrounds, Waxman and McKee have distinct and different roles to play within the medical school. Among the differences between their jobs, both agree, is that the ombudsperson is a designated neutral resource, someone who does not take sides or act in an official capacity.

The ombudsperson also works under absolute confidentiality, whereas Waxman, as a university officer, must consider the interests of the dean’s office and the university and would not be able to serve as a confidential sounding board.

"The position of director of faculty relations will be developing proactive initiatives," Waxman said. "The primary initiative right now is to create a faculty leadership development program in conjunction with the hospitals."

Waxman pointed out that although faculty members are often required to oversee several staff and significant amounts of money, few have substantial management training.

"You arrive and immediately begin to manage staff, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students in a lab and you are required to enforce policies, hire staff and manage performance," Waxman said. "The dean’s office is planning a variety of training programs to address these concerns about managing people. Faculty members need to know they can consult with the dean’s office about such management issues."

McKee agreed on the advantages of training faculty members in management issues before problems arise. "Ellen’s position in the dean’s office is one I have been advocating for a long time. The complexity and the sensitivity of many of these issues has led me to believe that the faculty need more resources much like staff have in human resources," she said.

As ombudsperson, McKee is by definition a confidential sounding board and an information resource for people who need to explore the dimensions of a problem or to be a neutral mediator between parties. In Waxman’s role as director of faculty relations, she can also act as a sounding board, but she maintains her official duty within the dean’s office to make recommendations or take action as needed.

"While I respect confidences and try to act fairly, my job is not as a neutral, confidential resource." Waxman said. "There are certain statements, such as allegations of sexual harassment or discrimination, that if I hear them, then Stanford has heard them." The same is not necessarily true for an ombudsperson.

Waxman’s official affiliation translates into concrete actions. "If there is something that needs to be looked into, like faculty misconduct, I will formally investigate that," she said. "My advice is to consult with Martha if you want to explore what to do and come to me when you are ready to access the dean’s office for a concrete action."

"If you do not know where to go, then my office is the place to start," McKee advised.

An example of a problem that is appropriate for the ombudsperson office may be faculty member who has a sensitive issue he or she does not wish to share with anyone in the university.

Perhaps this person may be concerned about a consensual relationship that is developing within a division and may seek a confidential discussion before taking any action.

After going over details with the ombudsperson, the faculty member might then choose to have the dean’s office involved and the director of faculty relations provide for a directed training on the new policy on consensual relationships in the workplace, McKee said. A visit to the ombudsperson is a way to have a confidential discussion about the options available before committing to any one particular course of action.

In short, the two emphasized that while both strive to resolve problems informally, the ombudsperson is a confidential, neutral and independent resource, whereas the director of faculty relations acts on an official level for the school.

Waxman: Resolving disputes by 'making connections' (3/6/02)

McKee can point the way in resolving workplace conflicts (1/17/01)