Q&A: Meet Brett Harris, UM’s First Ombudsman

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi has hired its first employee ombudsman, who will help the university build on its already strong reputation as one of the nation’s best places to work in higher education.

Brett Harris

Brett Harris

Brett Harris, who has worked as a mediator and attorney and more recently has been working as an organizational ombudsman in Idaho, will join the university July 13. Her post, which reports directly to the chancellor, was created to give employees a resource to mediate workplace conflicts or concerns and also help the university identify any systematic issues that may need addressing.

Harris said she’s thrilled about her new role to help employees at the university, which typically makes the annual Chronicle of Higher Education’s listing of “Great Colleges To Work For.”

“I loved everything about Ole Miss during my visit and I felt that this position was an ideal fit for me,” Harris said. “I have always wanted to serve as an ombudsperson at an organization that is already an excellent place to work and is genuine in its desire to ensure fair and effective dispute resolution for its employees. I believe Ole Miss also really tries to identify underlying problems to make the organization even better.”

Harris holds a bachelor’s degree from Idaho State University and a law degree from the University of Idaho College of Law. She and her husband, Wesley, have a 14-year-old daughter, a 9-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son.

She answered a few questions for Inside Ole Miss to help the university community get to know her better.

IOM: Tell me about how you became interested in being an ombuds?

Harris: As I transitioned from being a mediator and attorney to working as an organizational ombuds, I found that the work fit my skills and interests. I enjoy the problem-solving aspects of the job. I like the variety of such a multifaceted position wherein I can be working one-on-one with someone on a very sensitive concern and then later looking for trends in data and doing research. I enjoy setting goals for a program and achieving those goals. I also find it to be meaningful and fulfilling work. An ombuds can identify organization-wide issues and effect change in an organization. I have always been driven to promote fairness and I believe in compromise. As a practicing attorney, I would often discuss the potential costs and benefits of litigation with the hope that my clients would choose mediation as a less stressful and less expensive path. Now that dispute resolution is my main professional focus, I have the pleasure of regularly seeing the relief that people experience when a conflict can be resolved or more effectively managed.

IOM: How did you get your start in that as a career?

Harris: I spent two years investigating high-conflict custody cases for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe as part of my law degree emphasis in Native American law. This was the first of my experiences in crisis intervention, conflict management, investigating complex claims and promoting fairness of process for people from diverse backgrounds. I also completed basic and advanced mediation training and began mediating. Later, I became a mediation program director for the Idaho’s Seventh Judicial District Courts, training and supervising area mediators and managing all aspects of the courts’ mediation programs. I also worked as an attorney and gained experienced in employment law. This mix of legal experience, mediation experience and program management experience led to mediating employment issues and working as an organizational ombuds.

IOM: Not to make you brag or put you on the spot, but what are some of the qualities you possess that you think make you good at your job?

 Harris: I think I’m well suited for this role because I am analytical and empathetic. I can relate to people’s concerns and I take those concerns seriously. I am also a natural problem solver and I enjoy exploring different options in search of a solution. I like to think I am a great active listener and I strive to understand people’s needs and viewpoints. Finally, I’m not uncomfortable with conflict. I think of conflict as a natural part of life and I’m honored to be in a role where I am trusted to assist in handling these issues.

IOM: What is about working on a college campus that appeals to you?

Harris: College campuses are busy and exciting places. As a student, I enjoyed everything that my campus had to offer and I am looking forward to experiencing sporting events, guest speakers and music events as an employee at Ole Miss. From a professional prospective, universities are dynamic organizations with such a variety of people and perspectives. Universities are usually on the forefront of research and change. I can’t think of a more interesting place to work as an ombuds.

IOM: What does an ombuds officer do and not do and what services can your office provide?

Harris: An ombuds assists individuals within an organization with workplace-related conflicts or concerns and also assists the organization as a whole in identifying systemic issues that need to be fixed.

To assist individuals, an ombuds can assist in interpreting policies, provide information regarding different grievance options, generate options for managing conflict, provide coaching on workplace issues, mediate disputes and help visitors to the office find other resources they need. By tracking these individual issues – in a way that eliminates identifying information and maintains confidentiality – an ombuds can make recommendations that help the organization improve workplace climate, reduce loss of valued employees, prevent workplace bullying and other harm to employees, and reduce costs associated with more formal grievance channels.

An ombuds office is not an office of record, so if a visitor wants to document a complaint, the ombuds will direct the visitor elsewhere. An ombuds will not serve as an arbitrator or decision-maker for a dispute, nor will an ombuds serve as an advocate for any party, although an ombuds may serve as an advocate for fairness of process.

IOM: Some people may have trouble talking about any conflicts they have with other people, given that even acknowledging those conflicts can exacerbate the tension. Do both sides in a dispute become involved in the ombudsman process?

Harris: Not always. Sometimes visitors come in to talk about their concern and perhaps they just request some feedback in terms of interpreting a policy or figuring out what options are available for handling the issue. There are plenty of ways the office can assist without ever getting the other party involved. On the other hand, mediation, group facilitation and other processes that involve working with the other party can be highly effective in many circumstances. The office offers those options as well.

IOM: What are some of the guiding principles for the ombuds process?

Harris: The main guiding principles of an ombudsperson program are confidentiality, impartiality, independence and informality. This means that the office is a place to go to discuss concerns without fear of retaliation, formal record or other complications that can sometimes occur when an employee discusses a concern with a supervisor or files a formal complaint.

IOM: What principles guide you and the ombuds process?

Harris: First and foremost, I function under the principle of promoting fairness and respect. I also believe in the self-determination of the visitor, meaning that I respect the visitor’s wishes in regards to how to proceed. I will offer suggestions and options for handling an issue, but I don’t tell people what actions they must take and I don’t take any steps without their approval. The only exception is the rare circumstance in which an ombuds determines that there is a serious risk of harm to someone and that intervention of some sort is necessary.

I also adhere to the International Ombudsman Association Standards of Practice, requiring that an ombuds maintain the confidentiality of the visitor and the complaint, operate independently and without influence from the rest of the organization, and serve without bias. I strive to adhere to the International Ombudsman Association Best Practices as well. I am pleased that the University of Mississippi supports this office’s adherence to these practices.

IOM: What are the best means to contact you and discuss any problem that may arise?

Harris: It is best to call the office and schedule an appointment. Visitors are also welcome to stop by the office anytime but I may be helping another person or out of the office. I prefer not to be contacted by email by anyone who wishes to keep their identity confidential since I cannot guarantee confidentiality of email communications. Any person who does contact the office through email should limit the contents of the email to scheduling an appointment. For any non-confidential type of business, such as requesting outreach for your office or department, email is an excellent way to contact the office.

IOM: What is about Ole Miss that drew you here from Idaho?

Harris: I was initially drawn to Ole Miss because it is a large, diverse organization with a top-notch reputation. After spending time at Ole Miss, I was delighted to find that the organization is filled with exceptional people, the campus is beautiful and the city of Oxford has so much to offer. I am looking forward to experiencing life in Mississippi and becoming part of the Ole Miss community.

IOM: Moving away from the professional stuff, what are your hobbies, your interests?

Harris: I spend my time reading, cooking, traveling, hiking and exploring the outdoors, and cheering on my children at their various events. I also enjoy any kind of community or cultural event. Live music and sandy beaches are also on my list of favorite things, and I am happy to know that Mississippi has both of these to offer.

IOM: Tell me about your family.

Harris: My husband and I have a 14-year-old daughter who enjoys cheerleading and dance, a 9-year-old daughter who plays soccer and golf, and a 3-year-old son. My husband has served in the Air Force and Army as a medic for over 16 years and he works full-time as a registered nurse. He is an avid fisherman and outdoorsman and he keeps our family active and doing exciting things. We have lived in Idaho since our kids were born, so this will be an exciting change. We are all looking forward to a warmer winter season and a chance to visit the coast on a more regular basis.

IOM: What is your timeline for starting?

Harris: I will begin in mid-July. During the first couple of weeks, I will be establishing the office’s policies and procedures, creating the website and office documents, developing the office’s official charter agreement and networking with people on campus. I plan to have the office ready for visitors by the beginning of August.

IOM: Is there anything else you’d like to say to the Ole Miss community?

Harris: I am so very pleased to be joining the Ole Miss community. It is my goal to be highly visible and accessible so that faculty, staff and graduate students will utilize this office and find it to be a valuable resource on campus. I will be making the rounds to introduce myself to all the departments and offices within the first few months and I am so excited to meet people and share more about what this exciting new program has to offer the Ole Miss community.