5 Questions: Ombudsperson Jim Laflin on the importance of listening

Jim Laflin, the “listener” for the School of Medicine, said in an interview that rather than advise people on what to do, he helps them to clarify and identify their options.

James Laflin

Jim Laflin, JD, is an attorney specializing in mediation and conflict resolution who came to the School of Medicine a year ago as its ombudsperson. He is the founder of Concilium, a San Francisco-based mediation firm through which he mediated complex civil cases throughout California, the Northwest and Alaska for 20 years. He also has worked as a consultant for UC-San Francisco’s Worklife Resource Center and Office of the Ombuds, helping to resolve a variety of academic and workplace disputes. He has taught courses on mediation and negotiation, published papers on the issues and lectured widely.

In a recent interview with writer Ruthann Richter, he discussed his job at the medical school and the services offered through his office.

Q. What is the role of the school’s ombudsperson and how does he/she help the medical school community?

A. The Office of the Ombudsperson serves as a confidential resource for the entire medical school community, including faculty, staff, students, graduate students and post-docs, regarding any School of Medicine-related problem or issue that arises. Typical examples are workplace conflicts arising between colleagues and/or supervisors, mistreatment, harassment and bullying, authorship and scientific misconduct disputes, re-appointment and promotion concerns, favoritism and/or discrimination (based on age, race, gender, religion, national origin, etc.), and unfairness in the application of school policy, among other things. 

The ombudsperson acts informally, as a neutral and independent voice for fairness, not as an advocate, but in the interests of all sides. Some refer to this as being multipartisan.

So, what does the ombudsperson do? First and foremost, I listen. My office is a safe place where visitors can be heard without worrying about repercussions. Sometimes that’s all visitors want. Beyond that, I can provide information concerning school policies and formal processes and explain how those policies and processes might apply in a specific situation. I don’t advise individuals what to do but help them understand their options. By helping to identify and clarify options, visitors can decide and choose for themselves how best to proceed. So self-determination is a major principle here. Sometimes that can entail further involvement of the ombudsperson, and sometimes not. Where it does, that involvement can take the form of mediation, facilitated conversations, dialogue, shuttle diplomacy, coaching or some combination thereof. Importantly, the office does not become involved in formal processes, such as investigations, grievances and appeals. Nevertheless, I can offer explanations of those processes and how to engage them.

Q. Why is it important to have an ombudsperson?

A. It’s important to have an ombudsperson so that problems are addressed in a timely, effective and fair way for all parties concerned. This simply doesn’t happen unless organizations such as the medical school proactively create and support informal channels, such as the ombudsperson, specifically focused on that goal. I’m not arguing that formal investigatory, appeal and grievance processes aren’t legitimate or that they don’t have their place. They are and they do. However, the informal tools of the ombudsperson are far more appropriate and effective when it comes to improving communication, restoring trust, building more responsible relationships and cutting through bureaucratic red tape to achieve good outcomes. Otherwise, individuals and the organization suffer the consequences of festering conflict, such as attrition, lost productivity and lawsuits.

Q. Do most medical schools have an ombudsperson or is Stanford unusual in this respect?

A. I believe most medical schools now have an ombudsperson. To Stanford’s credit, it was among the first to establish such an office.

Q. What are the biggest challenges of the job?

A. Some of the biggest challenges involve trust and default thinking. Trust because it’s the foundation of the relationship between the ombudsperson and the individuals who come for help. It’s something I never take for granted. I have to earn it with every person I work with.  And that takes time, effort, honesty and compassion.  

Default thinking is another big challenge. By the time most people reach out to the ombudsperson, they’ve exhausted pretty much all the options they can see for themselves; they can’t think of anything else to do. This is a normal result of how our minds work, especially in stressful circumstances; we replay the same internal narrative over and over again. I call this default thinking, and I work to help people get out of this box so that they can take a fresh look at their circumstances and consider making some different choices.  So this is another big part of what I do: supporting best thinking and moving beyond default thinking.   

Q. I imagine that people might shrink from a phone call or visit from you, as they expect you to be the bearer of bad news. How do you manage socially?  

A. This is a great job, one that I’m grateful for and that I thoroughly enjoy coming to every day. Once people understand what it is that I do, they’re nearly always appreciative — not only of me personally but more importantly of the School of Medicine and what it says about the values of the leadership and institution that they care enough about this community to devote the resources required to support the office.  


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