COVID, racism and the need for safe, accessible, fair and credible conflict management systems in organizations (and communities)

By Prof. Mary Rowe, MIT

COVID-19 and the murder of Mr. George Floyd have illuminated—like a lightning storm—the need for constituents in every job classification to find safe, accessible, fair and credible ways to express concerns within their organizations and seek help. We need effective conflict management systems in organizations, and every major system needs at least one safe, independent, neutral, confidential professional as an access point. It helps if there are people of color and women who serve as safe access points to the conflict management system. In addition, every system needs competent, independent, fair, formal investigations, and investigation teams should include women and people of color, or at least regular input from diverse professionals.  


In the last three months, I have listened to more than 60 organizational ombuds from around the world. These ombuds serve organizations in all sectors, helping both their employers and all of their constituents to deal with workplace concerns. Many ombuds are working almost literally around the clock, with up to 40+ Zoom meetings a week, listening to employees and managers (and other cohorts like students and faculty as relevant to the organization).

Many constituents at all levels, and especially employees, managers and students of color, have been afraid to seek help, and turn to ombuds offices—often in desperation. Ombuds help their employers to deal with risk by helping to identify and assess and communicate about concerns. At the same time, ombuds help each of their constituents to deal with the risk of seeking help by being neutral, confidential and independent resources who keep no case records.

Ombuds are doing their best to support individuals and groups to understand the resources - if any - that are available to them and to offer options for communicating their concerns. The pathways to address concerns are often unknown by those who have them. It is critical for organizations to provide channels for voicing these issues in a way that employees and managers (and all other groups relevant to the organization) perceive as safe, accessible, fair and credible. While ombuds do not have management decision-making authority, constituents may be able to contribute to new solutions if they can do so safely. By the same token senior officers also need accurate information and new ideas. Helping employees, managers and students to surface concerns in an orderly way may support effective strategic planning by senior officers. 

Some issues causing conflict that I hear from many sectors include:

  • Individuals being required to work when they deem it is not safe—and an appalling lack of OSHA protection;
  • Gross inequities with respect to personal safety, particularly for people of color and women;
  • Lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), lack of testing, fear of repeated nasopharyngeal tests, and distrust of virus and serological tests;
  • Being required to work when family demands are impossible to meet; dealing with anger, fear, and grief from family and friends;
  • Very sharp increases in emotional and mental health needs throughout the organization, from lower-level employees and students to senior leaders;
  • Profound compassion fatigue and burnout on the part of human services professionals in organizations, including health care staff, human resources staff, and employee assistance program (EAP) staff;
  • Concerns about coworkers, fellow students, and managers not complying with safety regulations, especially regarding masks and physical distancing. Questions come up like “How can we complain safely? Why isn’t our conflict management system enforcing the rules?”
  • Inequities of every sort—especially about “who has to come in” to the workplace and who is bearing the brunt of COVID-19 (with racism, sexism, and xenophobia all sharply on the rise);
  • Being heavily monitored online by AI applications when working from home, with serious privacy fears; not everyone is happy about their home life being visible or trackable on Zoom;
  • Panic about possible layoffs in households that are already are out of money;
  • Employees at all levels—and students—wanting to be included in planning returns to work and in planning changes to respond to the many systemic inequities faced by people of color and women.  
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Comments on "COVID, racism and the need for safe, accessible, fair and credible conflict management systems in organizations (and communities) "

Comments 0-15 of 2

Elisa Enriquez - Monday, June 29, 2020

This is heartening and exhausting. It corroborates what we are seeing too.

Mary Bliss Conger - Monday, June 15, 2020

Thank you for sharing this with us, Mary.

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