Solving Workplace Challenges: Smith's New Ombudsperson

Michael Stephens, Smith’s new ombudsperson, is dedicated to helping people feel more confident about solving workplace challenges.

To illustrate his approach, he draws a line chart on a white board showing strategies that range from “doing nothing” at one end to “quitting” on the other.

“That’s a big spectrum,” says Stephens, who began work at Smith last fall. “What I try to do is help people see that they do have options. There may not always be perfect solutions to issues that arise, but there are always alternatives.”

Stephens’ office in Lilly Hall is designed to be a safe space for faculty and staff to discuss concerns in a confidential, neutral environment. Such concerns may range from improving day-to-day communications with colleagues or supervisors to ethical dilemmas on the job. In addition, Stephens can provide information about having “facilitated conversations” or a mediation process with a co-worker or supervisor.

Campus community members can set up meetings with Stephens via email, mjstephens@smith.edu.

Stephens, who also serves as ombudsperson for Amherst College, brings 25 years of experience in human resources and ombudsperson roles—including at Merck pharmaceutical company—to his position at Smith.

Here’s what he had to say about his work on campus.

 

How do you work with people who seek out your help?

Michael Stephens: “That really depends on what visitors to my office want. What most people are looking for is a confidential coach and counselor who can talk about issues that are coming up in the workplace. The most common concerns I hear are interpersonal conflicts that are creating difficulties. More often than not, there is also some sort of power differential involved. I do see both employees and supervisors. Anyone can potentially face these kinds of challenges.”

 

What strategies do you use to solve workplace problems?

“It’s important for people to realize that I am not here to intervene or do an investigation. My role is about providing confidential encouragement and support. I encourage people to accept that there may be aspects of their situation that can’t be easily improved. But more often than not, there are good reasons why people want to keep working at Smith. I’m pretty good at helping people feel more confident about dealing with problems so they can reduce their stress levels and get back to work. And people really appreciate the full commitment to confidentiality.”

 

What is your responsibility regarding sexual harassment or discrimination?

“If I hear about a possible Title IX violation or a threat of serious harm to another employee, that is something I need to report. In those cases, I keep information on a need-to-know basis. Neither of those situations has come up at Smith, but they have in my previous positions. For discrimination complaints, I do discuss the concerns with employees, and then counsel them to consider making a formal complaint through HR or other channels.”

 

What do you like best about being an ombuds?

“I appreciate the college environment and the feeling that I can make a contribution. I’ve always liked meeting with people one-on-one and helping them with workplace challenges. Job stress is the worst. If those 40 hours you are spending at work each week are miserable, it can really impact your life. I like it when I can help people see more possibility in a situation and feel more confident about dealing with issues at work.”

 

What does having an ombudsperson say about Smith?

I see the position as a sign that the administration is really trying to foster a positive work culture. I consider the ombuds an important alternative channel that can help the college overall because it gives people another avenue for working out problems. It’s part of the mix of services that are available to staff and faculty, but it’s a more informal channel that can be just what is needed in certain situations.”

 

What, if anything, has surprised you about Smith?

“It’s not really a surprise, but I have been really pleased with the support I’ve received from the college administration. It’s hard to be in this role if you don’t get that support. It’s great to see all the college does to support faculty, staff and students. ”

 

What’s something that people on campus might be surprised to learn about you? 

“I’m a lifelong amateur musician—I play several different types of guitar. I’m also the director of the Pioneer Valley Shambhala Meditation Center.”