Ombuds Program Offers Ear, Alternate Resolutions

Tech's ombuds program is a confidential, neutral, informal and independent conflict resolution and management resource open to assist any member of the Georgia Institute of Technology community. Georgia Tech classified staff ombudsman John Schultz has held this position since January 2006, drawing on his extensive background of both employee relations and as a corporate ombudsman. Following are some questions and answers about his philosophy, his work, and his experience.

Staff Ombudsman John Schultz
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Georgia Tech Classified Staff ombudsman John Schultz serves as an informal, confidential resource in conflict resolution.

Can you give us some of your background?

I graduated from St. Johns University in New York in 1973 with a BA in Government/Politics.

My first job out of college was as a budget planner for Grumman Aerospace on Long Island in 1974. I then worked for several different aerospace companies as a financial analyst, an industrial engineer, a manager of internal controls, manager of program planning and control, Ombudsman and Employee Relations Manager.

My human resources background has really benefited me a lot and has been augmented by my further schooling in mediation and alternative dispute resolution. I still mediate for the court system in Gwinnett County, and I'm a member of the University System of Georgia chancellor's advisory group for all alternative dispute resolution issues. I'm also one of the senior mediators for the Board of Regents.

When did you start at Tech and in what capacity?

In June of 1998, I started as an employee relations coordinator, working for Russ Cappello. When I was there, Employee Relations basically handled employment concerns, disciplinary actions, unemployment claims and the Georgia Tech Impartial Board of Review. We would reach out to interpret procedure and policy for management, and advise management on disciplinary steps to take, in any issue. Employee Relations handled concerns/issues in a formal manner.

How long did you serve in that capacity?

I did that until June 2004. When Russ retired, I assumed all of Employee Relations' duties until December 2005. I became the classified staff ombudsman in January 2006.

What would you say is the main difference between Employee Relations and the ombudsman?

The neutrality, informality and strict confidentiality are the basic distinguishes between the two offices. I view myself as an advocate of what's fair and right versus an advocate of either an employee or management. In my job, I inform both non-management and management employees that they may have erred in a specific situation.

Why did you make the transition from Employee Relations to Staff Ombudsman?

I believed in the ombudsman concept and there was a specific job opening. Additionally, I had five years' previous ombudsman experience at Rockwell International's Tactical Systems Division in Duluth. When Dr. Jean Fuller, the previous GT staff ombudsman retired, I was appointed to the position by Chuck Donbaugh, AVP of Human Resources.

In August of 2008, the office moved into the Office of the President, reporting through the Office of the Provost.

Including myself, the campus has a total of four ombudsmen. We have a graduate student ombudsman, Professor Emeritus Dr. Russ Callen. Then there are two faculty ombuds, who also handle post-docs. They are Dr. Narl Davidson, a professor-emeritus and former associate dean for the College of Engineering, and Professor Emeritus Dr. Edward Thomas, former chair of the School of Physics. Although the other three ombuds are part-time, they are on campus regularly.

While each of us may be contacted regarding any issue, my focus is primarily classified staff and Administration.

How does the ombudsman process start?

Any individual-any employee-may contact us through any means and can make an appointment to see us. They can come at any point [in the process] they want. They can come when they initially have a problem, when they're in the middle of trying to get something done or toward the end. We allow them to basically vent, to say whatever they want to say. We're nonjudgmental, we listen and we present options to them on how to resolve their issues.

If indeed they want our direct intervention, we will inform them that they may lose their anonymity. However, none of us acts on their behalf until they are comfortable with what we intend to do-we try to empower them to get their supervisors involved because we can't actually fix their problem for them.

Specifically, what I normally do when employees come to me [is to] listen to them and try and empower them to do something for themselves. If not, I will tell them I need to get the person with whom they have the issue-their supervisor, co-worker, or other employee-involved. If they say OK, then I will approach the person from the standpoint "This person came to see me, they presented some concerns and I really would like to get your side of the story." This is especially effective in an employee and supervisor issue because I know there are, at least, two sides to every story and I want to maintain my role as an advocate for fair and right vs. the employee or management advocate.

After getting the other side of the story, and if I feel it would help, I will suggest we either mediate or allow me to facilitate a conversation or discussion between [the two]. I am also a registered mediator with the state of Georgia, so that helps me in this regard. More than likely, I will facilitate a discussion, but sometimes we'll have a formal mediation where there is an agreement written up.

What are some of the caveats people should know?

We are not an office of first notice. For example, if a young lady came to me and said she was being sexually harassed, we would listen to what she had to say, but if she really wanted it handled or resolved, or she wanted to put the Institute on formal notice, we would direct her to go to someone in Employee Relations Services.

If they don't follow our direction or guidance, they cannot come back and say 'We put Georgia Tech on notice because we told the ombudsman.' We'll tell them that we instructed them where to go to file a complaint but did not officially receive the complaint.

This is in an effort to keep confidentiality, because that is so tantamount to this whole process. Once you lose that, you really lose your effectiveness-people won't trust you. The biggest publicity we receive is by word-of-mouth.

In what capacity do managers and supervisor seek your advice?

Mostly when administrators, managers, directors or AVPs [associate vice presidents] contact me, since they know I have an employee relations background, they want advice and counsel on alternatives to termination or disciplinary action that would could damage the employee career-wise. We'll sit and chat, and I'll present different options in an effort to rehabilitate the employee.

Can you talk generally about your caseload?

The four ombuds just presented our annual report to Provost Gary Schuster and Executive Vice President Steven Swant. From June 2008 through August 2009, we had about 165 cases total, but the majority were staff-related. Most of the staff cases deal with workplace disputes between supervisors and employees, and administrator/management counseling.

How would you describe the resolutions?

I would say most cases have a positive outcome. I don't remember any cases that have gone to litigation. How we measure our effectiveness is to look at how many cases go to the Georgia Tech Impartial Board of Review, the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or actual litigation. For faculty, we measure how many cases go to the Faculty Status and Grievance Committee. We're looking at other means to measure our effectiveness.

Would you say that cases resolved before going to these boards are a success?

It depends upon when the employee comes in. If the employee comes in early on, we have a real expectation of success. Occasionally-more than I would like to see-they come in very late in the disciplinary process. Disciplinary action is already under way, and employees will come in and try to plead their case. While we will address that particular issue they come in for, we cannot reverse the disciplinary action that has been taken, nor can we prevent any further disciplinary action from being taken.

The Institute won't allow retaliation to an employee for their use of this program. However, if an employee violates a rule or has performance issues after they have visited me and the supervisor either initiates disciplinary action or takes the next step of disciplinary action, this is not retaliation.

How much of what you do is knowing policy and procedure, and how much helping people talk through their issues?

I probably spend more time talking and interfacing with people. Sometimes I'll get an employee come in with concerns, we'll talk about it and then I'll present some options. There's a time when I may say, 'Maybe the problem is with you, and here's why.' I'll explain and take my time, so hopefully they'll understand. After that, sometimes they may become concerned, wondering who will know they were here. Even though we have no reprisals for coming here, people still may be concerned their supervisors will find out.

I let them know this is a confidential process. If this is something that only they need to resolve, no one's going to know about it. I have a motto for employees: I tell them, 'If I can't help you, I won't hurt you.'

The ombudsman program is so necessary for a campus this size. An office where people can go to a safe haven and say what they want to say.

There are only two areas where I am compelled to break confidence: If a person tells me that they are going to commit suicide or if they are going to hurt someone else. And I have had no cases of that.

If you know of abuse of the p-card, for example, is it still confidential?

Yes, it's still confidential. What I will do, though, is encourage the person to meet with Internal Auditing and I'll even go with them, just so they know it's the right thing to do. I have done this on several occasions.

Have you ever received any backlash from managers or administration?

No. I have had a question or two where people have asked 'Why do people want to come to see you, but they won't talk with me?' My pat answer to them is 'Are you creating an atmosphere where folks feel freely to talk with you without any reprisal?' In this office, it's guaranteed.

I would hope that managers and supervisors realize the ombudsman's office is not an enemy. We're put into place, like Pearl Alexander and others are in place, to be the first lines of defense to protect the Institute from lawsuits or bad publicity. I tell them, 'You'd rather have a phone call from me than from an attorney or an investigator, right?'

Every day I come in here, I have to believe that the Georgia Institute of Technology, as an entity that has been in existence for more than 100 years, wants to do the right thing each and every time. Having said that, I realize some people within this Institute may want to cut a corner or act in an improper manner toward an employee. Those are the individuals I want to help.

What are the benefits of the reorganization, putting the ombuds offices under the Office of the President?

Well, for an ombuds program to be effective for all Institute constituencies, it must report to the highest office.

Roughly what is the percentage of employees vs. supervisors coming to you?

Probably 75 to 25 employees to supervisors.

The Georgia Institute of Technology is one of the world's premier research universities. Ranked seventh among U.S. News & World Report's top public universities and the eighth best engineering and information technology university in the world by Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities, Georgia Tech’s more than 20,000 students are enrolled in its Colleges of Architecture, Computing, Engineering, Liberal Arts, Management and Sciences. Tech is among the nation's top producers of women and minority engineers. The Institute offers research opportunities to both undergraduate and graduate students and is home to more than 100 interdisciplinary units plus the Georgia Tech Research Institute.