Informal reactions are intended to resolve concerns at the earliest stage possible. Use of the informal reaction process serves the dual purpose of educating the UTIG Community about negative behaviors while working directly and confidentially with the parties involved. The informal reaction can provide a victim of minor incidents with the necessary support to address such problems. Informal reaction resolutions may include discussions with the parties, recommendations from the DEAI Committee for the respondent and complainant, and a follow-up review to assure that the resolution has been implemented effectively.
5.1 Why internal reports and informal reactions?
People may be less likely to report negative behavior if their only options would involve the UTIG Director or Human Resources; an internal report and informal reaction process can facilitate a resolution without escalating to those levels. Similarly, investigations can be time consuming depending on the complexity of the situation or the seriousness of the issues, and an informal process for reconciliation can be less disruptive to the working or educational environment, involve fewer people, and generally preserve or strengthen working or advising/mentoring relationships. Informal reactions can be a quick and useful tool to settle misunderstandings or get clarification for a given situation. A victim may fear that making a formal complaint would lead to a painful, adversarial investigation, or that the accused could face disciplinary measures harsher than the victim might desire. A process that allows for anonymity also reduces a victim’s fears of gossip or retaliation: “If you file a formal complaint, and the person you filed it against finds out about it, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of people in addition to all of the stress you’re under from the incident and from the process,” says Victoria Sanchez, an undergraduate student at Yale University, in an interview about informal complaints. “I could see cases where people are bullied. I wouldn’t want to deal with that. That takes a lot of courage.”
However, complainants must be aware that internal reports will be elevated to external reports by the DEAI Committee when they involve a violation of Title IX, University non-discrimination policy, or serious fraud or scientific misconduct (see formal reactions). Whereas the DEAI Committee facilitates the resolution of misconduct and is obligated to report severe violations to the above named official resources at UT, we are also committed to improving the climate within the UTIG community in other informal ways. This means that we are prepared to facilitate communication between individuals or within groups that have experienced tension, check in with individuals/groups following the resolution of misconduct (if desired), facilitate or give advice on how to approach difficult or anxiety-inducing conversations (e.g., between supervisor and student), and provide guidance and introduce practices on how to make a research group diverse, inclusive, and responsive to each member’s accessibility needs. Therefore, the DEAI Committee welcomes all matters concerning our community and is looking forward to equipping UTIG with tools to become a more fair and welcoming environment.
Because UTIG scientists and students conduct expeditionary research and attend professional meetings, a personal conflict may arise between someone affiliated with the University of Texas and a colleague at a different institution, either in the United States or abroad. A reportable incident may also happen between a person visiting UTIG and an employee or student of the University of Texas. In such circumstances, a respectful work environment is essential. The DEAI Committee therefore also accepts informal reports of misconduct if the respondent is not affiliated with the University of Texas. The DEAI Committee will provide guidance and invite all persons involved in the incident to participate in mediation.
5.2 Multiple approaches to mediation and conflict resolution are needed
It is difficult to judge the efficacy of the current process for conflict resolution due to the lack of reporting metrics and the usual confidentiality of the process. However, it is the opinion of this DEAI Committee that the (low) number of reports to the UTIG Human Resources (HR) coordinator do not reflect the number of incidents that warrant some kind of mediation. The current process favors either a punitive justice approach to toxic behavior or a hierarchical mediation approach for conflict resolution. For the former to work, it must be proven that the initial offense violates institutional policy, which is often not the case either for lack of evidence, reticence by the complainant to pursue the issue, or because the behavior is not quite bad enough. This is problematic because behavioral patterns that are not considered egregious enough to warrant punitive action can still create divisions in the workplace. Conventional mediation is either organized in a top-down process through the HR structure (e.g., a complaint to the Dean initiates a dialog) or through the Ombuds office. For conventional mediation to work, both parties must agree to participate, which is not guaranteed. We believe that one reason this approach sometimes breaks down is because the process is considered too formal: A potential complainant prefers not to involve the HR structure or the Ombuds office and/or the respondent does not want to engage, perhaps believing that participation is an admission of guilt that they would rather avoid. Accordingly, this committee offers the following general recommendations:
- Multiple models for mediation and conflict resolution should be described to the UTIG community;
- The DEAI Committee should have a standing subcommittee composed of individuals with mediation
training, available to counsel complainants on options and to assist with mediation, if requested;
- UTIG should encourage its community members to think about conflict resolution as a restorative
justice process rather than a punitive justice process
The first two practical recommendations can be adopted by UTIG through the DEAI Committee; however the third is a recommendation to the entire UTIG community. We propose that when our community perceives toxic behavior as opportunities for growth, rather than punishment, we will have initiated a community convergent approach to conflict resolution. There will always be a place for punitive justice; however, when such an approach is pursued for offenses that do not meet the standard for formal punishment, the process is both community divergent and lacks any benefit whatsoever.
5.3 Restorative justice model for conflict resolution
A restorative justice approach to conflict resolution emphasizes the reparation of harm through a cooperative process that includes all stakeholders who collectively develop a plan to both heal the inflicted harm and reintroduce the offender into the community. The restorative justice model seeks to 1) ensure that the offender understands the harm they caused; 2) offer the offender an opportunity for personal development (moral, behavioral, etc.); 3) help the offender believe the plan for reconciliation is fair and legitimate; and 4) avoid stigmatizing the offender. The process typically (but not necessarily) involves direct encounters between the reporting and responding parties. Confidentiality agreements are typically signed to promote open and honest communication throughout the process. Restorative justice is an alternative to the more conventional retributive approach to justice, which considers only the offense and related circumstances to determine a punishment commensurate to the offense, with no explicit consideration of the community. The restorative justice model can be applied at UTIG to address complex interpersonal dynamics and problematic behavior in an informal way (e.g., not necessarily requiring involvement of the Director or Human Resources staff).
Hypothetical example – A junior staff member of the community feels belittled, bullied, or otherwise uncomfortable in their relationship with a more senior staff member. The junior member submits a report to the DEAI Committee, indicating a preference for an informal report. After confirming that there is no need to file a formal complaint, the DEAI Committee informs the reporting party that restorative justice mediation is recommended. If the complainant consents, the DEAI Committee informs the offending party that an informal complaint was filed and that confidential group mediation is requested. The notice explains that both parties (complainant and respondent) should be joined by a trusted member of the community who they feel will have their interests in mind; members of the DEAI Committee are available for this process and regular mediation with a neutral third party could also be applied. The participants sign confidentiality agreements and agree on a time and place to meet. The meetings begin with a statement explaining that the objectives of the meeting are to explain the offense, repair harm, and strengthen community. The complainant provides additional detail on the offense, if needed, and explains what they desire to resolve the issue. The respondent is given the space to respond to better understand the offense. The process continues until all participants understand the claim and commit to reconciliation. In some cases, an agreement will be written down. All parties will also agree if the contents of the agreement will be disclosed to anyone else and the appropriateness of follow-up arrangements with the mediators. If agreement cannot be reached, the mediators will assist all parties with identifying the next steps.
The process of mediation is confidential except as noted below. Any notes made by the mediator during the process will be destroyed after the process concludes unless both parties request all or some of the notes to be retained. The mediator will not divulge any confidences that are shared unless the parties consent or the mediator reasonably believes that he or she is required by law or University policy to report the incident. Should this happen, the mediation process will be stopped and mediators will alert the appropriate University services, who will inform both parties.
Reports generated from the mediation process will be redacted to remove the identities of the parties involved. These anonymous reports will be helpful in tracking the types of behaviors that are being reported to the committee.
5.5 Stalled mediation
The mediation process is intended to be constructive and can expediently reach outcomes acceptable to both the complainant and respondent parties. In the event that the process stalls due to apathy or an unwillingness on the part of the respondent to cooperate, the mediators may seek advice from other resources on campus or at UTIG (including the Director).