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No problem too small

DATE: Friday, March 15, 2019

HCC hires its first-ever ombudsperson and chief culture officer

Lea Occhialini talks to staf

These are some of things Lea Occhialini does NOT do on the job:

She does not take sides. She does not act as a judge – or jury. She does not impose solutions. She is not an advocate. She does not testify in disciplinary proceedings. She does not keep records of conversations. She might not say hello to you in the hallway.

These are some of the things she DOES do on the job:  

She listens. She protects confidentiality. She remains impartial and maintains her independence. She periodically destroys her notes and deletes her calendar. She helps resolve conflicts, mediates disputes, clarifies rights and policies, talks through ethical dilemmas. She keeps track of workplace trends and reports them to the college president.

The things Occhialini does NOT do – and the things she DOES do – she now does for Holyoke Community College as its first-ever ombudsperson and chief culture officer. She started her new position March 4.

"First and foremost, the ombudsperson is a resource for faculty and staff," she said. "My job is to protect their interests at all levels of the college and to promote fairness."  

Occhialini – pronounced "Ock-a-lini" – previously served as the faculty and staff ombudsperson at Hampshire College and a mediator and trainer in the Smith College Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity. Prior to that, she worked as a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court qualified mediator for the Mediation and Training Collaborative in Greenfield and helped oversee the Massachusetts Attorney General's Face-to-Face mediation program in Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield small claims courts.

The idea to add an ombudsperson and chief culture officer to the college came from President Christina Royal. The ombudsperson does not work in human resources and reports directly to the president.

"I'm excited about this new position," Royal recently told the HCC Board of Trustees. "Although it's very common at four-year institutions, to my understanding, this is the first time a community college in Massachusetts has had an ombudsperson."

Occhialini grew up in East Longmeadow and still lives there. She attended Smith College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and women's studies. She also holds a law degree from American University's Washington College School of Law and a certificate in the foundations of organizational ombudsman practice from the International Ombudsman Association

She has worked in mediation since 2013.

During a recent staff meeting, Occhialini explained the "four pillars of the ombudsperson profession."  

"I am confidential, neutral, independent and informal, and when I say I am confidential I mean I keep no records of who I meet with and what we talk about," she said. "So, no one can go into my office, go into my emails and find that information, and any notes or calendar I keep are only available to me and I periodically destroy that. I take confidentiality very seriously."

There are only two exceptions to that confidentiality, she said: she is obligated to take action in the event of a serious threat of imminent harm; she is also a mandatory Title IX reporter.

Among the types of issues that might merit a visit to the college ombudsperson: disputes with colleagues or supervisors; clarification of rights and policies; advice on how to engage in a difficult conversation; ethical dilemmas; cultural misunderstandings; concern about potential discrimination or retaliation; a change that affects your working environment.

"Any troubling life event that's affecting your ability to do your job to the best of your ability," she said. "I think sometimes people think they can only come to me with these crazy, dramatic issues. I hope that every member of the faculty and staff will utilize my services. No problem is too big or too small."

PHOTO by CHRIS YURKO: Lea Occhialini, HCC's new ombudsperson and chief culture officer, explains her job at a recent staff meeting.