Staff Q&A with Marcia MartÍnez-Helfman

The Office of the Ombudsman, housed in an annex to the Arthur Ross Gallery at 113 Duhring Wing, offers members of the Penn community a place to discuss, manage, and resolve conflicts and disagreements.

Staffed by Ombudsman Thadious M. Davis, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of English in the School of Arts and Sciences, and Associate Ombudsman Marcia Martínez-Helfman, the office provides and ensures confidentiality and neutrality in all discussions, except when there is a risk of imminent harm or if there is a legal obligation to disclose.

“We’re neutral in that we don’t advocate for the individual, or department, or school, or a position in a specific dispute,” Martínez-Helfman says. “Our objective is to help the parties move beyond whatever their conflict is. We [provide] an informal process of discussion, bringing folks together to help them resolve their issues.”

Martínez-Helfman, who earned a bachelor’s in sociology and a law degree from Penn, and a master’s in social work from Washington University in St. Louis, began working at Penn in July 2011, bringing with her more than two decades of experience in conflict resolution. As the full-time associate ombudsman, she handles the bulk of “visitors” who come to the office, and works in partnership with the University ombudsman, a faculty member who typically serves a two-year team.

“We call them visitors because we don’t see them as complainants or respondents,” she says. “Because we don’t take sides, we don’t want to label the person coming in, or the [person on the] other side of the dispute.”

The Current caught up with Martínez-Helfman to discuss coming back to Penn, her philosophy of dispute resolution, the skills required to do her job, and the importance of communication.

Q. Why did you decide to return to Penn?
A. My background is in employment law and human resources. I worked in those areas for over 20 years and then started my own consulting business in 2008. But I knew that I enjoyed working in an organization and with other people more than working independently, so when I saw this opportunity to return to Penn in a role that would really build on my professional background, I jumped at the chance. My predecessor, Gulbun O’Connor, was in the position for 23 years, so she was a real wealth of knowledge and helped me a lot with the transition.

Q. What types of skills are necessary to do your job?
A. I think you have to be a good listener, you have to be non-judgmental, and at the same time you have to analyze what’s going on to the best of your ability so you can help sort out what the next steps might be ... without taking sides. It’s a combination of training, personal experience, and personal style.

Q. You said the office follows an ‘informal process.’ How are you informal?
A. Our office offers an informal process to the University community that is different from the various formal resources that are available to resolve different matters. For example, the Office of Student Conduct hears student disciplinary matters and follows specific, proscribed procedures. The Faculty Handbook offers a grievance procedure for faculty that produces a formal decision. The Office of Affirmative Action conducts formal investigations of allegations of discrimination. In contrast, our work is much more informal in that we don’t conduct formal investigations, hear grievances, or maintain records. Rather, we listen, offer suggestions, educate the visitor about resources available to them, and assist with resolution of disputes by reaching out to others who may be involved. Additionally, because confidentiality is such a distinctive feature of what we do, we may do nothing other than offer a safe space for people to come to talk and air out an issue or concern.

Q. Do you find that your legal and social work training is helpful?
A. I’ve always found it helpful, the legal training I received, especially the legal training I received at Penn. I was always somewhat uncomfortable when I’d find myself in an adversarial position as a lawyer. I find this to be a better fit for me because it’s about trying to resolve disputes rather than digging in for one side or the other, which is more constructive to me. In addition, in HR as well as in employment law, you have this really big responsibility to take on difficult issues that involve people and their lives and their careers. It’s really a privilege to have that responsibility, and it’s really gratifying. I find that in this job I get to do that as well. People come here with things that are very distressing to them; they’re under a lot of stress. I get a lot of gratification out of helping them move out of that and into the direction of finding a solution.

Q. Do you serve the entire Penn community?
A. We serve faculty, students, and staff—any member of the Penn community, with the exception of people who work exclusively for the Health System or members of collective bargaining units. These are people who have their own dispute resolution resources.

Q. Does any one group—students, faculty, or staff—use your services more than the other?
A. Over the history of the office, that has really varied. In the past few years, the majority of visitors to our office have been staff members, but our office has been in existence since 1971 so there is this kind of ebb and flow in terms of different constituents who seek out our assistance. 

Q. When do people come to see you? Are they usually at their wits’ end?
A. Our job is to offer perspective and to facilitate the formulation of solutions so that the visitor can constructively address the matter and avoid further escalation. People come to us at different times, depending on the issue and how they perceive their options. Sometimes they have exhausted all of the available formal alternatives and resources, and may want us to get involved as a last resort. We also work with individuals who simply want to talk about where they are at the moment and what they might do to avoid a conflict or barrier at some point in the future. We meet with staff who may be encountering issues with a supervisor or a colleague that they haven’t been able to navigate on their own. Faculty seek out our office for help with issues involving tenure, departmental politics, peer relationships, and a whole host of other matters that can arise at an academic institution. Depending on the case, the visitor may be at the initial stage of exploring a situation or, at the other end of the spectrum, may be in real crisis and in need of urgent guidance.  

Q. Can you take me through a sample process?
A. It really varies, but typically with an individual who comes to meet with us—sometimes it will be a couple of people or a small group of people, but by and large it’s individuals—initially I’ll just explain to them how our office works in terms of confidentiality, neutrality, informality, and they will share whatever their concerns are. For example, communications have broken down with their supervisor, or they feel like they haven’t been given fair consideration for a promotion, or they feel like they might want to try something new with their career and they’re not quite sure how to begin that process of exploration. It really runs the gamut, from pretty serious stuff to [people who are] just looking for somebody to listen to them, and that’s really all they need. Others ask us if we can help facilitate a conversation with the other party, so what I do is—with their permission because of confidentiality—ask for permission to talk to the other person, maybe invite that other person to meet with me and see if there’s any way for the parties to shift so that a resolution can be found that everybody can live with.

Q. Does a lack of communication or breakdown of communication seem to be the cause of a lot of problems?
A. I would say ... in the vast majority of cases, some form of communication breakdown leads people into this office. And that is both issues where an individual has not expressed themselves in the way that they intended, or the listener hasn’t heard the words that were said in the way they were intended. That’s true in all of these areas, whether it involves faculty, students, or staff. A couple of things that I try to do are to get people to assume that the other person’s intentions are fundamentally good and, secondly, to take charge of one’s own destiny. If something’s happening that you’re not happy with and you’re uncomfortable with, you should speak up in a respectful, but assertive way. And assertive doesn’t mean aggressive. I think that if people did more of that, and did it with clarity and directness, they’d be better understood.

Q. Do you think employees, in general, should undergo training to learn how to better communicate in the workplace?
A. In a place as big and diverse and complicated as Penn, you’re going to get people who approach academia, their jobs, from a lot of different perspectives, and that invariably leads to some friction. Some people are better than others at communicating, so I’m glad that we’re here to help facilitate that. The purpose of our office is to make Penn a good community where people want to come to work, study, teach, do research. We do everything we can to foster that kind of environment.

Q. What do you like to do in your spare time?
A. Spend time with my family. My son will be a freshman at Penn next year. I’m a maniacal Eagles fan so I divide my year into two parts: football season and waiting-for-football season. I’m in the latter stage right now and I’m chomping at the bit.

Marcia MartÍnez-Helfman - story