Chapter 07: Developing the Ombudsman's Office: John Mendelsohn and Anu Rao

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Chapter 07: Developing the Ombudsman's Office: John Mendelsohn and Anu Rao

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In this chapter, Dr. Brock discusses the growth of the Ombudsman's Office under Anu Rao. He begins, however, with comment on how John Mendelsohn, MD (3rd president) was interested in addressing the climate of faculty elitism and establishing more equality among faculty and staff. Dr. Mendelsohn's support for the Ombud's Office was an outgrowth of this commitment. Next, Dr. Brock explains that Ann Rau "hit the ground running" when she took over directorship of the Ombud's Office. He mentions how she raised awareness of the Office and also explains how Ms. Rau worked with the legal department to define the confidentiality of the Office's client records. Next, Dr. Brock explains how an ombudsman for nursing was hired during the period prior to Ms. Rau's arrival, when he was head of the Office. He explains his belief at that time that the Office needed people with different specialties to address the needs of employees. He notes that Ann Rau said this was "a bad idea" once she arrived, and he explains how his own view of this changed by shifting his focus to the characteristics that all conflicts share. Next, Dr. Brock talks about what he learned about the institution once the Ombuds Office offered services to all employees. He then sketches the high points of Ms. Rau's plan for developing the program: marketing services and creating a very popular training program for dealing with conflict, difficult conversations, and other communication challenges. Dr. Brock explains that the Ombudsman's Office at MD Anderson is not alone in finding it very difficult to assess the financial impact of mediating conflict.

Identifier

BrockW_02_20190122_C07

Publication Date

1-22-2019

Publisher

The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center - Building the Institution; Leadership; On Leadership; Portraits; MD Anderson Culture; Institutional Processes; Working Environment; Understanding the Institution; Personal Background; Professional Practice; The Professional at Work; Critical Perspectives; Critical Perspectives; Ethics; Institutional Politics; Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Religion

Transcript

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

I just want to say for the record that it is five minutes of 11:00 on—oh my gosh, did I check the date? January 22nd? Is it...? Bill Brock, PhD Mm-hmm.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

January 22nd, 2019. [laughs] Coming out of a long weekend, it’s like, okay, getting back in gear. And I’m on the fourth floor of the Cancer Prevention Building in the Ombuds Office for my second session with Dr. William Brock. So thank you very much. And— Bill Brock, PhD You’re welcome.  

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah! And so we were strategizing a little bit and we ended up last time with Anu Rao’s arrival at the institution, and I was interested in kind of more of what she brought, and then how the department started to evolve, the office started to evolve underneath her direction. Bill Brock, PhD Okay. As I said before, we started out as a Faculty Ombuds Office in 2000, and because that was working well, [ ] and there seemed to be a growing interest in having an Ombuds Office for all employees. [ ] And since we had many cases that involved faculty and nonfaculty employees, so the need was there, and the word that the Faculty Ombuds Office existed was getting out. And so I went to Dr. Mendelsohn and talked to him about that. [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

And it’s quite striking, I mean, that he really provided a great deal of support for this new area. I found that interesting. Obviously, the institution was poised for a group of reasons. It was sort of in the wind that this was really needed, and—because getting that executive support is so key. Bill Brock, PhD Right, and I think that Dr. Mendelsohn’s personality was such that he had an interest in the development of fairness among employees. [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

[ ] [Redacted] Bill Brock, PhD Well, I just thought he was a good leader, and I thought he did a great job of, number one, trying to improve the quality of the faculty. And [he made efforts to improve the culture of the institution.] [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

[ ] Bill Brock, PhD [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

[ ] Bill Brock, PhD [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

[ ] And I’ll just say for the record that kind of was hanging over this conversation about John Mendelsohn is he passed away about a week and a half ago [7 January 2019], and so the institution’s been remembering and grieving him, so... Yeah, yeah. And his obit in the Times came out just a few days ago. Bill Brock, PhD [ ].

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

[ ] Bill Brock, PhD [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

[ ] Bill Brock, PhD [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

[ ] Bill Brock, PhD [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

[ ] Bill Brock, PhD Okay, so to get back to where we were, with Anu Rao. Once it became clear that I didn’t want the job of heading an ombuds program for the entire institution, because I really didn’t have the experience or the training for it, we went on a national search for someone, and came up with Anu Rao, who was working for Coca-Cola at the time.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah, you mentioned some of her work doing that, yeah. Bill Brock, PhD Right. And she came here, and I think she turned out to be the perfect person to start a program, because she hit the ground running, and set up a charter and all of the necessary approvals from the institution, and made agreements with Legal and everything about how we were going to operate, and how we were going to keep records, and so forth. And—

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What were those discussions like? Because I’m always curious with Legal—even with the oral history project, we have these conversations, because there’s a sense, no, there’s one way you do it, and you have to do it this way. Did you guys run into issues like that with Legal? I mean, not understanding kind of the specificity of a function area. Bill Brock, PhD Yes, we—

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Not that— Bill Brock, PhD —we’ve run into one type of issue with the legal department [and it is not surprising]. [ ] [Conversation with an Ombudsperson are not privileged, like they are with an attorney. Therefore, if there is a legal issue with an employee, the legal department is naturally interested if they discussed their issue with the Ombuds Office and if we have any records of the meeting. So, they send the office a memo telling us to preserve any records of the individual. The International Ombudsman Association recommends that we resist providing any records or information, although we have no legal right to withhold that information.] [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Right, like attorney-client privilege or something like that, yeah. Bill Brock, PhD [ ] Over the years, [I would estimate that legal has asked for fewer than five files.] [ ] [ Now, the question is: does the employee file contain useful information, and I would suggest that it does not contain much. An open case contains the employee’s name, demographics, title and other similar information. It also contains documents given to us by the employee and any notes we take during the meeting(s). It may also contain a general description of the type of issue the employee brings to the office. After we are finished with the case, all identifying information is automatically deleted from our database, leaving only demographics, issue type, employee title, etc. If a case has been closed, there is no way we can link any specific person to that case.]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Do you keep your individual case notes? Bill Brock, PhD We keep case notes while the case is open but when we close a case, the folder and everything in it is shredded. [Database information is treated as I described above.] [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

That’s so important. Bill Brock, PhD Yes. [ ] [Document destruction is written into our policy and charter and it was approved by legal, including the Attorney General’s office. There are ongoing efforts to give Ombuds and their records privileged status in Texas, but that is something for the future.]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Do you have the sense, is it a time issue, or is there some resistance to doing that? Bill Brock, PhD I think there’s resistance.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What would there be? What resistance would there be? Bill Brock, PhD I don’t know. [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah, interesting. Bill Brock, PhD [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

So you were going through ways that Anu Rao kind of hit the ground running, and that was one of the areas. What were some of the other things that she—a big change she made? Bill Brock, PhD I just can’t imagine how she did this, but within a year she knew [hundreds of people] in the institution. [ ] She joined committees and increased the size of the program. [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, interesting. Bill Brock, PhD [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Interesting. Now, I had noticed that there was a special ombudsperson who was dedicated to nursing. Is that the case? Bill Brock, PhD Okay, so we’ll go back in time now.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

And, I mean, this was part of the general question... Okay, so that actually happened earlier. Bill Brock, PhD So my vision, when I first started the program, was to first have an ombudsperson for the faculty. Another area was the Division of Nursing that would benefit from Ombuds services, so I thought we should hire and train a part-time nurse for this purpose.] [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What were the issues coming up that were so specialized that they required that kind of expertise in intervention? Bill Brock, PhD Well, my thought was that if you have expertise in a specific field—like I did as a faculty member—that you could be of more assistance to employees in that specialty, okay? [ ] As a result, Janice Freeman, [ ] [a highly experienced nurse at MD Anderson was trained as an ombudsperson] and worked part time with nursing issues, right? [ ] [Janice Freeman was very good and that arrangement worked very well. However, when Anu Rao took over leadership of the program, she said that all Ombuds should serve all employees, because it is better for their experience and because many conflicts won’t necessarily be between employees of the same speciality. She was right!]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Interesting. Bill Brock, PhD And she was absolutely right about that. [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What were you— Bill Brock, PhD —no more...

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

I didn’t mean to cut you off. Sorry. Bill Brock, PhD [ ] And at that point I realized how little I knew about the rest of the institution, and how little I knew about HR, because the faculty have Academic Affairs to take care of most of their personnel issues. And so I didn’t really know how HR operated. [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What were some of the things that you—kind of made you really change that perspective? Because that’s a radical change of perspective. Bill Brock, PhD What do you mean?

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Well, in the sense... I mean, that was the question I was going to ask is what is it that opens your eyes to the fact that the activity of an ombudsperson doesn’t have to linked to a specialty, that it’s a general issue. Bill Brock, PhD The beginning of that came when I talked to [ ] [Judge Frank Evans at] the South Texas College of Law, where I took mediation training. Frank Evans [is considered to be the “father of mediation in Texas.” ] He told me, “You can mediate any situation without knowing anything about the issues or the people [or their line of work. It’s all the same. It’s probably helpful, but you really don’t need to be an expert in the field.”] [ ] I have found over the years that he is right. Does that answer your question?

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah, I was just curious, because, I mean, I think the presumption—and part of it goes—I think goes along with a culture that says there’s this group we call the faculty that’s really special. I mean, we’re sort of having a conversation about that now, because leadership training is being combined with HR, and there’s a lot of, well, wait a minute, combined training can’t possibly acknowledge the special challenges of faculty members, and this kind of thing. There’s the idea that faculty somehow is special. And in the—as a subgroup they do have kind of characteristics, things that are unique to their experience. So that idea is part of the culture, and shifting away from it and getting people to embrace that there can be someone who’s a generalist who comes in and just helps with this focus problem of conflict, I think that’s like a paradigm shift for people. So I was curious how you had shifted over and changed your perspective from specialty needed to we don’t need a specialty focus. Bill Brock, PhD Well, as it turns out, conflicts are all based on similar issues. Most issues are based on interpersonal relationships, and so faculty are not any better at handling conflict than any other person, right? [Helping faculty or other employees isn’t fundamentally different and faculty are not any better at managing conflict than any other employee.] [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

So what happened with the ombuds for nursing, or for...? Was that kind of specialization kind of sunsetted, or...? Bill Brock, PhD Well, Janice started playing a different kind of role. She was no longer a specialist, although we did make use of her specialized knowledge in nursing. We were all sort of generalists at that point. [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Why was that an issue? Bill Brock, PhD Well, they just were different rules, and we had the faculty appeals process, which was the equivalent of a grievance, but it was a different process, with different steps, and different timetable, and so forth.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Now, you mentioned when your perspective is kind of changing, you were realizing how little you knew, A, about the institution, and, B, about HR. So tell me more about kind of the big learning moments in discovering—what were the landmark discoveries about the institution, and then about HR that helped you move forward in your own work as an ombudsperson? Bill Brock, PhD Well, the main thing is I just had to find out what the processes were, and I did that by reading policies. And the big one at first was the grievance policy. I had to learn the process so I could tell employees about it because most employees who want help with grievance have never done it and have no idea what the process is, and you really can’t—you can’t tell them the wrong thing, [laughter] especially on the timetable. [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

How so? Bill Brock, PhD Well, you have so many days to file a grievance, and if you don’t do within that time, you lose the opportunity to file. That’s it. [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

[ ] Bill Brock, PhD [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What were those? Bill Brock, PhD Everything was conflict resolution, difficult conversations, [how to reframe issues, all related to conflict.] [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What were some of the things you discovered through that? I mean, was this...? Bill Brock, PhD Well, [teaching is the best way to learn. I learned a lot about basic interview skills, may techniques for managing conflict,] and the science behind it. In other words, what is a conflict, how does it progress, and what types of conflicts are there, and personality types and strategies for dealing with them. [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

It sounds like you must have had a really tight team feel. Bill Brock, PhD Yes, it was and there was never any conflict amongst us [and everyone was willing to pitch in when needed.] We all worked so well together. It’s probably the most unified group I’ve ever worked with. [The office functions in the same way now.]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Very interesting. So the impact of these training programs, did you kind of track what happened as a result of them? Did people say yeah, they felt were functional? I mean, all that kind of stuff. Bill Brock, PhD Well, a lot of people who went to the training program then came to our office with the specific issues. The training programs always had a lot of participation in the groups, and they would act out different situations and conflicts. [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah, if you did that at all. Bill Brock, PhD Part of the results would be tracked by just people coming to the office and developing a relationship with us, so we could see what was going on. And, well, we got feedback from the people that were in the course. We gave them an evaluative questionnaire to fill out.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

So what did you feel—what kind of impact did you feel you were making? Bill Brock, PhD Well, we were seeing every year probably three and four percent of all employees. [That is similar to Ombuds offices throughout the nation. It was difficult to evaluate individual cases, because of our confidentiality policy. Also, after a visitor leaves our office, most do not want to hear from us again. We assume if things aren’t going well, they will come back.]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Really? Wow. Bill Brock, PhD Yeah. And everybody says that seems like a small number, but it isn’t a small number, yeah.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

[laughs] Well, three percent of 20,000 people! Bill Brock, PhD That would be the employees who would come here with an issue, and also the people that we would draw in to help solve that issue. [ ] Efforts have also been made to determine what is the economic impact of an ombuds office, and so—

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. Bill Brock, PhD A huge impact is the cost of losing an employee; what does it cost to hire a replacement. [ ] There have been estimates made by other offices, but it’s really difficult to [measure]. Another part of the economic argument is what does it cost in terms of lost effort. As I mentioned before, when employees are involved in a conflict, they’re not working effectively. And the people that are observing the conflict are not working effectively. They’re watching and maybe even encouraging or getting involved. So that’s another aspect of the economic cost of conflict. Collaborations, which are so important in this institution a lot, can be destroyed through conflict, but on the other hand, we have many examples where collaborations have been enhanced by [good conflict resolution], especially when it comes to issues like authorship [or experimental work].

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Did you guys put together any—did you take a stab at putting numbers to all this? I mean, was there ever that— Bill Brock, PhD Well, we produce a yearly report, in which we would include the number of contacts, [job titles and the general issues. The issues are divided into] [ ] nine general categories, and each general category had subcategories in it that would kind of explain what the conflict was all about. And usually a conflict will have two or three of those related issues.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

But you never made an attempt to kind of put numbers to kind of push that financial argument a little farther? Bill Brock, PhD No. [We have not tried to make those estimates.]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah, that’s a tough one. Bill Brock, PhD That is very difficult to do, and I don’t think anyone has been successful in [generating useful numbers. A number of years ago, the] American Express [Ombuds Office] made an estimate of the cost of conflict, and these estimates were astronomically high. [ ]

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Chapter 07: Developing the Ombudsman's Office: John Mendelsohn and Anu Rao

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