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Business Officer Magazine

Building a Conflict-Competent Culture

In an interview with Lamont Stallworth, professor at the Institute of Human Resources and Employment Relations, Loyola University Chicago, the expert on conflict resolution discusses why college and university leaders should support an integrated approach to conflict management on their campuses.

By Karla Hignite

Disturbing headlines about bullying and other ill-mannered behaviors taking place online, in all levels of educational institutions, and in public forums flag loud and clear an unwelcome shift in our culture. To understand the issues surrounding such conflicts and offer advice on their resolution, Business Officer turned to Lamont Stallworth, professor at the Institute of Human Resources and Employment Relations, Loyola University, Chicago. The following interview with Stallworth, who is also chair of the Center for Employment Dispute Resolution, provides an overview and guidelines for building a higher education culture that is conflict resistant. (For more information on the topic, see “The Peaceable Workplace” in the July-August 2010 issue of Business Officer.)

Describe the value of a conflict management and alternative dispute resolution (ADR) support infrastructure for higher education institutions.

As a microcosm of our larger society, particularly from a demographic standpoint, colleges and universities offer a great context and opportunity for trying to develop what I call a “conflict-competent culture.” This is an environment where people recognize that conflict exists, that conflict is going to occur as a matter of course, and that conflict itself isn't necessarily bad. What is bad is trying to squelch or ignore conflict. We instead need to learn how to manage conflict and create an environment in which all individuals feel included as full, valued, and respected citizens of that community.

I don't think any institution or organization that projects an image publicly or internally as truly supporting diversity can do so unless it has a strong conflict management and ADR program or system in place. I say this because research suggests a connection between workplace bullying and issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation, for instance. So, not taking conflict management seriously can have a negative impact on an institution's diversity initiatives and commitment as well as permit a culture in which violence may occur.

What does it cost to put in place internal conflict management and ADR programs and systems?

The actual costs of staffing and training associated with these programs will of course vary by organization. Expenses in large part depend on costs related to using internal staff or fees charged by outside professional designers of conflict management systems or programs. However, to be fair, we first must acknowledge the direct and indirect costs of not having these kinds of programs or systems in place. For instance, the economic consequences of bullying and incivility are great, because these behaviors interfere with workplace performance and productivity and contribute to an overall negative climate that is fertile ground for other problems, such as faculty and staff turnover.

In fact, the costs associated with incivility might be enough to prompt college and university leaders to establish codes of conduct that spell out expectations for behavior and to design and apply policies to prevent and resolve workplace bullying and harassment. Studies show that about 70 percent of alleged targets of workplace bullying leave the organization, resulting in high costs to address not only employee turnover but also worker compensation claims and disability and legal expenses. For instance, when an individual files a lawsuit for discriminatory treatment or harassment, the cost to defend an EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] claim can easily reach $100,000 or more.

So, the actual cost factors for putting these programs in place with appropriate staffing and training commitments must be weighed against the costs of litigation, of a valued faculty or staff member walking away from his or her career, or of an employee getting injured or even killed as the result of an unresolved workplace dispute.

What must campus leaders do to support a culture of civility and a formal system of conflict management?

Early intervention by higher education leaders is fundamental to addressing the problem of bullying and incivility at all levels throughout an institution. Training deans and department chairs and staff supervisors on the implications of bullying and relevant employment laws is crucial, as is training on how to provide empathy and support for targets. If institution leaders can take time to conduct seminars on retirement and benefits, they can take time to train all employees about the value of civility and the need for alternative ways to resolve our disagreements.

This is important information for students as well. There is a tremendous and unique opportunity at a university to create a conflict-competent culture by directing to students courses and seminars on conflict resolution. You can start with freshmen, incorporating these ideas and approaches into their orientation and courses.

Without a doubt, one of the hallmarks of any successful ADR program is that it has unwavering support from the top down. From a structural standpoint, administrators must be proactive in developing strong antibullying and incivility policies and protocols and making sure these are engrained within the culture and understood by all employees.

What specific policies and protocols should that include?

Foremost would be a specific statement of commitment supporting, if not requiring, civility. Such a statement would essentially prohibit harassment of any type, specifically including workplace bullying. This can be a straightforward statement to the effect that all workplace bullying of any kind is prohibited, or it can go into much greater detail, defining what workplace bullying and incivility mean within the context of your campus community and identifying the particular behaviors and actions that will not be tolerated.

Establish protocols to thoroughly and objectively handle claims of bullying or incivility early on. Whether a claim is actual or perceived ultimately makes no difference in how the charge should be addressed. Institution leaders must never diminish an individual's complaint if they want the institution to maintain credibility as a conflict-competent culture. Be clear also about the disciplinary process that will be followed for those who engage in acts of bullying or other uncivil and counterproductive behavior. While such protocols should exist institutionwide, it may be that individual components of the institution—for instance, the faculty senate or student council—wish to develop their own sanctions and protocols for treatment of “the alleged dirty doers,” as Toni Robinson, MIT ombudsperson, describes them.

Because workplace harassment and bullying claims must be investigated, develop protocols clearly stating that individuals who knowingly give false statements during the investigation of a claim shall be held accountable and subject to discipline, up to and including termination of employment. Establish a strong nonretaliation policy for witnesses and complainants alike so that they will not fear repercussions by the institution or by colleagues for coming forward and speaking honestly.

Finally, to ensure that the program is working as it should and to the satisfaction of all involved, establish protocols to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness—for the institution and for individuals—of any conflict management/ADR program or system and its various processes. While designing and implementing conflict management and ADR protocols may seem a major undertaking, this process provides an opportunity to educate faculty, staff, and students about racial and sexual orientation, tolerance, civility, and ways to handle conflict within their professional and personal lives.

Given the size and complexity of most higher education institutions, how do you ensure consistency and transparency of these protocols?

Do not permit instances of conflict of interest—particularly involving legal counsel. In addition, ensure that any trained and qualified grievance committees, fact finders, or mediators are independent. Provide disputants the option to use external professional workplace dispute resolvers, such as fact finders or “independent neutral investigators,” as suggested by an employer attorney.

Transparency comes into play not only with regard to how you've defined inappropriate behavior for the institution as a whole—and how you communicate this through various channels such as human resources, your faculty senate, or staff and student councils—but also through what you identify as specific duties and accountabilities of administration, legal counsel, and members of your academic community. For instance, make deans and department chairs aware that they need to report any inappropriate behavior they may witness and inform their faculty members of their rights and responsibilities to do the same.

Regrettably, I do not think many deans or department chairs feel they have the time, expertise, or the confidence to consider investigating a colleague. It takes a lot of courage for an individual to exercise his or her “voice,” and this can be doubly difficult for someone who is not in a leadership position. Consider the scenario of a nontenured faculty member who witnesses a tenured faculty member engaging in bullying or uncivil behavior. What is the likelihood that the nontenured faculty member will say something, if he or she fears repercussions regarding his or her own future tenure status?

The result too often is an organizational culture in which those who see inappropriate or harassing behavior taking place become bystanders instead of intervening. Not everyone has tenure, and others do not want to “rock the boat” or risk becoming targets themselves or being isolated. Some may even secretly want the target's job. For whatever reason, individual faculty or staff members are often caught in a dilemma of whether to tolerate incivility or bullying or to say something. They wonder: “Should I leave the organization?” or “Should I exercise voice?” And to be clear, voice comes in many forms, including decisions to pursue external charges, bring a lawsuit, or engage in a range of defensive behaviors, some of which could even lead to physical violence. A conflict-competent culture squarely addresses the “bystander” problem by assisting such difficult individual decisions with supportive policies and the availability of skilled experts.

Where do most colleges and universities fall short in their conflict management and ADR initiatives as they try to create and promote a culture of civility on their campuses?

The biggest mistake many institutions make, perhaps most often for the sake of cost savings, is to try to assemble a core of internal conflict resolvers who do not have the actual subject expertise to address faculty and staff complaints. What then happens is the complainant goes through the process, gets an adverse decision—or at least an adverse decision in his or her opinion—and then views the entire process as a kind of “kangaroo court.” This is where true transparency comes to the fore and where accountability has to flow from the top down. Leaders have to recognize the need for professionalism in this area and to appreciate that many, if not most, alleged targets are inclined to view internal processes, including human resources, with distrust and suspicion.

This is why I strongly believe in giving the alleged target the option of saying that he or she wants an outside, neutral workplace dispute resolver to come in and investigate or mediate. This gets to the heart of another necessary component of a successful ADR program and that is to pursue an integrated conflict management system. Such a system provides alleged targets with multiple axis points by which to seek redress of a complaint, whether that is through human resources; the provost; a faculty ombudsperson; or an external fact finder, hearing officer, mediator, arbitrator, or trusted insider

What is the particular role of an ombudsperson or trusted insider?

This ombudsperson position and its specific function may vary from one institution to another, but an ombudsperson is most often an independent, confidential, informal resource. Very often an ombudsperson is available on behalf of a specific segment of the campus population—such as faculty—because he or she has a particular understanding of that population. In that instance, the person may be a respected senior faculty member at the institution, who is viewed, and has proven, to be an effective confidant and dispute resolver. An ombudsperson can help explore the issues and the resources available to an individual and help weigh the pros and cons of pursuing various options. Something unique about this role is that everything confided to an ombudsperson is off the record, so telling the ombudsperson is not telling the organization.

In addition to the ombudsperson, many organizations have members who may be considered “trusted insiders.” This is a term coined by Myrna Adams, former vice president of institutional equity at Duke University. The trusted insider may effectively play the role of an unofficial ombudsperson.

What kind of national effort might focus on industry best practices of conflict resolution and the problem of faculty incivility and workplace bullying in higher education?

The Center for Employment Dispute Resolution is launching a nationwide ADR initiative, in cooperation with the American Arbitration Association and other groups, to make available a core of trained mediators, fact finders, and arbitrators who can provide a range of services based on the particular needs of an independent, neutral investigators institution. This may include acting as external sources who come to an institution to conduct investigations, or educating and training employees on how to assume conflict management and resolution responsibilities at their institutions through certification training programs. Currently we are developing a National Workplace ADR Public Policy Summit for June 2011 to be held in Washington, D.C. Higher education institution representatives and other individuals who are interested in finding out more can e-mail me at; or call 312.527.3774.

KARLA HIGNITE, San Antonio, Texas, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

A Structure to Combat Conflict

Over the years, many institutions have created diversity officer positions, and some in these roles have assumed conflict mediation responsibilities. But this has not always been the case, notes Myrna Adams, a mediator and organizational consultant in Durham, North Carolina. In 1995, Adams established Duke University's Office for Institutional Equity, for which she formerly served as vice president. “What is really needed,” she says, “is to develop alternative dispute resolution capacities and competencies within a cadre of individuals who have specific training and certification to function as mediators, negotiators, and dispute resolvers; who are recognized and trusted by their peers; and who can instill confidence in the mediation process to resolve problems.”

Instead, too often there is a gap in institutional understanding of the need for a comprehensive dispute-resolving system, says Adams. She admits that it not easy to mesh together into a cohesive whole the various efforts by human resources with the work of diversity officers, affirmative action officers, special ombudspersons, deans, student coordinators, trained conflict mediators, and so forth. Yet, while some do not see the need for all these separate efforts—perhaps viewing them as duplicative—when it comes to providing faculty and staff with a range of options based on their own levels of trust and comfort, then redundancy can be a very good thing, argues Adams. This is especially true when institution leaders are looking to avoid litigation or a major breakdown in workplace relations.

Here Adams offers several hallmarks of successfully structured internal conflict management systems for colleges and universities.

Instill confidence in conflict resolution. We all know that institution cultures are quite varied, and some by their nature or history are more litigious than others, notes Adams. “No matter whether employees ultimately seek redress internally or through outside mediators and investigators, a primary goal for any integrated conflict resolution system within an organization should be to build confidence in your employees that matters of dispute will be addressed fairly.”

Pursue presence and prominence within the campus community. To truly help employees learn to resolve and manage conflict, an institution's ADR staff must be highly visible, well-regarded by peers and institution leaders, and perceived as employee advocates who are willing to take risks. “You must be present in many places and in many ways so you are seen as a full functioning member of the community. If employees sense that your office or its staff are marginalized, then they are much less likely to trust your assistance,” notes Adams.

Coordinate efforts among all conflict resolvers. Because there is potential for turf wars to emerge among the various offices that have pieces of an institution's conflict management system, it's imperative to build a strong and effective network for sharing information and determining who will take primary lead when cases overlap. “The ultimate goal is to build a healthy, productive workplace for all employees,” reminds Adams. “If a strong network does not exist formally or structurally, individual leaders of these various components may have to take the initiative to create informal networks for collaboration.”

Reflect the diversity of employees. One of the great benefits of an integrated conflict management system is that it can be composed of trained individuals who are not only diverse from a demographic standpoint but also in terms of their work background, says Adams. For instance, some faculty may only feel safe talking to another faculty member. Having trained conflict resolvers from all levels and disciplines within an institution ensures that all employees have options for seeking assistance from those with whom they feel most comfortable or compatible, says Adams.

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