T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T      S E P T E M B E R  –  O C T O B E R   2000



text and photo
by Cynthia Delgado


The Ombuds Circle: (left to right) Howard Gadlin, Kathleen Moore,and Doris Campos-Infantino

In 1997, NIH launched a pilot project to establish the Center for Cooperative Resolution (CCR) headed by the first ombudsman, David Lee Robinson (former chief of the Visual Behavior Section, NEI). The center was to serve as a confidential and neutral site for early-intervention conflict resolution for all NIH employees (see The NIH Catalyst, January–February 1997, Ethics Forum).

The pilot project served five institutes for 18 months before it officially opened to all of NIH in 1999 with a new ombudsman, Howard Gadlin, at the helm, aided by Robinson, who worked with Gadlin during the transitional first year.

Both the pilot project and the first full-service year were quite successful, says Gadlin. Questionnaires and feedback from the people who used the office during the pilot period were "quite positive." They deemed the office "very effective," he says. And in 1999, the CCR handled more than 300 cases involving close to 800 people and set into motion new mechanisms to resolve conflicts of a systemic nature in a more fair manner (such as peer review panels) and to prevent common sources of conflict from arising in the first place (such as early-stage partnering agreements regarding such issues as work expectations and authoring—a "prenuptial" for scientist collaborators and mentors and mentees, according to the CCR Annual Report for 1999.

"The center is really just this office," says Gadlin of his home in Room 1B39 in Building 31. It’s called a "center," he says, because "we do things [in addition to] one-on-one conflict resolution" (such as facilitating meetings and conducting employee training and seminar series for management) and we are also the focal point for conflict management at NIH."

Previously a tenured professor at the University of Massachusetts with a background in experimental psychology and a penchant for visual perception, Gadlin says he "got into [the role of] ombudsman by accident." What he viewed as a "two-year break from my regular job"—at UCLA—turned into his regular job. "I got totally intrigued with it, so I kept being renewed." He served as UCLA’s ombudsman for seven years until being lured away by NIH.

Gadlin is assisted here by Doris Campos-Infantino (deputy ombudsman) and Kathleen Moore (associate ombudsman), with whom he balances the workload. (Two more people are slated to be hired to replace others who are leaving.) The CCR staff also sets aside time for a monthly journal club to discuss the latest approaches to conflict resolution. The center collaborates with other service organizations on campus and with external groups (such as the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.).

"The basic idea of an ombudsman’s office, Gadlin says, "is to have a place where people can come to address grievances and concerns without, or before, going into any formal procedures. The office should be confidential, neutral, independent, not part of management, [and] without decision-making ability, and serve as an intermediary between disputing parties," Gadlin says. There are many ways, he observes, that one can be unhappy in the workplace that do not involve a violation of rules or rights. Indeed, there are some concerns for which "there are no policies or procedures, nor would you even want or expect to have policies or procedures."

Among the advantages of using the CCR as an alternative route to formal dispute resolution are the degree of personalized attention each case receives and, by virtue of less red tape, the relative speed with which conflicts are likely to be resolved. "We have the latitude to develop a mode of intervention that’s appropriate to the situation. We don’t have a fixed procedure." The process is also less adversarial. "If you file a formal grievance against your boss," Gadlin comments, "it’s automatically framed in an adversarial way. You’re saying, ‘This happened...She’s at fault.’ "

When an individual approaches the ombudsman, Gadlin and his associates hear his or her complaint and desired outcome and "get their sense of the situation." Sometimes a person "merely wants some advice or help in reviewing a letter they have written to ensure it conveys what they want it to convey." Some of the techniques used to help are facilitated discussion (between conflicting parties), mediation (using a third-party diplomat), or a generic approach (correcting a system’s problem while the particular complainant remains anonymous).

Because confidentiality is paramount, there are no written records related to individual cases, but the office does maintain statistical records of complaints handled, processes used, and types of resolutions achieved. According to the CRC annual report for 1999, nearly 75 percent of the 328 cases brought that year involved issues related to work environment, management, and personnel matters. Six percent of cases related to research. More than 40 percent were closed within two weeks and nearly all within six months. Sixty-six percent were fully resolved, including several complex, multiparty scientific disputes.

Gadlin notes that he has "gotten much more interested in doing early intervention and conflict prevention than ever before," an interest reflected in the emphasis placed in the annual report on "partnership agreements" among scientific collaborators and mentors and postdocs. "A partnership agreement is essentially a prenuptial agreement for scientists," the report observes.

"In our experience, many of the conflicts that arise between scientists could have been avoided had the parties to the conflict begun their collaboration with an explicit agreement about their expectations of each other and about how they would handle the major transactions of the collaboration." The office is developing formal partnering agreements it expects to finalize this year and hopes their use will become standard practice within five years.

Partnering agreements, Gadlin says, are "not just a way of preventing conflict but also of fostering the sorts of working relationships that enable people to do better science." The office also hopes to find ways to address racial tensions at NIH and, all in all, "change the culture of NIH in ways that increase its ability to fulfill its mission."

The CRC may be reached at (301) 594-7231; for more information, visit the web site.



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