University of Iowa Settles Few Workplace Bullying Cases

Even though workplace bullying has been identified as a major concern in recent years, University of Iowa officials responsible for informally resolving those disputes are successful in only one in every eight cases, according to data that sheds light on a campus office often shrouded in secrecy.

The Office of the Ombudsperson resolved 8 of 63 bullying complaints brought to its attention by students, faculty and staff between January 2010 and Oct. 5, 2011 and improved the situation in two others, according to data released to an Iowa City lawyer and shared with The Associated Press. The office failed to resolve 13 complaints, and the outcome was listed as “unknown,” “unclear” or blank in most of the rest, according to the data, which the university released only after being threatened with a lawsuit.

The data highlights an office whose operations have largely been done in secret since its creation in 1985 and appears to undercut its claims that most employees are satisfied with the service they receive. The office is supposed to serve as “a confidential, neutral and independent dispute resolution service” for the school’s 15,000 faculty and staff, according to the university operations manual, but has no authority to order changes if voluntary agreements can’t be reached.

Bullying among students has become a major issue in schools following several tragedies involving gay teens, but the issue also is prevalent among adults in the workplace. More than one-third of U.S. workers say they have experienced bullying, the repeated mistreatment by bosses and co-workers that includes verbal abuse, threatening conduct and intimidation, according to a 2010 survey commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute, a group dedicated to combating the issue.

Staff Ombudsperson Cynthia Joyce declined comment on the data and referred questions to university spokesman Tom Moore. In response to written questions, he called bullying “one of the most intractable problems the office handles.”

“There are many reasons why a case may not be resolved at the time of the office’s last contact with a visitor with concerns about this problem,” Moore wrote. “In particular, in the majority of workplace bullying cases, the visitor does not want any action taken by the office.”

Critics say the data shows the office favors the university administration and does not do enough to help workers who are mistreated.

“The ombuds office at UI has a long and successful history of resolving conflicts. However, the current atmosphere there is toxic to bullying victims,” said attorney Andrew Hosmanek, who has studied bullying in the workplace and shared the data with AP in hopes of changing what he considers an ineffective office. “Bullying victims should be aware that, according to this data, bringing a case directly to the ombuds office is very unlikely to end in a positive result.”

Under the current set-up, he said employees may need to pursue a formal complaint, file a lawsuit or consult with a counselor or psychologist to change what he called a “bully culture that has arisen in parts of the UI.”

In addition to the low rate of resolution, the data shows:

– The office made a “low” effort in more than two-thirds of the cases. Moore said that may be because the office simply listened to concerns and helped workers decide on a course of action or that visitors decided to resolve their concerns independently by quitting or transferring jobs, for instance. In complex cases, the office may expend low effort if it is only one of several university offices working the problem, he added.

– The office made a “high” effort in a single case, which ended by arranging a meeting with a department executive officer.

– At least five of the complaints later went through a formal legal process, including a lawsuit, an appeal or a grievance.

– The office redacted the details of each complaint except one: “Significant other of UI grad student is being mobbed at work.” That complaint received a low effort by the office and the outcome was unknown.

Hosmanek filed a public records request seeking details on the office’s handling of bullying complaints in October after the office’s annual report claimed that 81 percent of its visitors left satisfied with the service they received. The report based that claim on a voluntary survey returned by 41 percent of the roughly 500 visitors to the office last year.

The report said complaints of disrespectful behavior, including bullying, have sharply increased in recent years and now involve one-quarter of the office’s cases. Against that backdrop, Hosmanek said he wanted to see the data to gauge the office’s effectiveness.

Moore claimed many visitors leave satisfied even if the office doesn’t resolve their complaints.

University records custodian Steve Parrott at first rejected Hosmanek’s data request, arguing the office’s promise of confidentiality to those who complain was crucial to its operations. “The office performs no government function, maintains no official documents, and provides mediation services. Its records are confidential and privileged and therefore not subject to open records requests,” Parrott wrote.

Hosmanek protested the response, arguing the office was subject to the public records law, served a public function, and did maintain records. Parrott acknowledged the office had records, but claimed they were exempt from disclosure because they were “confidential personnel records” under Iowa law.

After Hosmanek said he did not want names of employees or victims, only data, and threatened to seek legal remedies for an open records violation, Parrott told him there were 63 bullying complaints for that time period. The school eventually released heavily-redacted records from the office’s database showing the effort expended in each case, the outcome and whether the dispute later went to a formal grievance or legal process.

“Although the University of Iowa Office of the Ombudsperson position remains that their records are confidential and not subject to disclosure,” he wrote, “the Office was willing to share the enclosed documents to bring this matter to a close.”