October 2017 Advocate: How to be your own best witness


How to be your own best witness

By Paul Rueckhaus, Skyline Chapter Co-Chair

While most of us never anticipate a workplace conflict, too many of us—at some point in our career—may find ourselves in a situation that warrants union representation. Student complaints, irregularities in evaluation procedures, allegations of harassment or discrimination, violations of seniority and unreasonable scheduling, disregard for academic freedom, perceived coercion or intimidation, disciplinary proceedings, work overload, hostile working conditions, persistent workplace environmental hazards, and classroom ratios are just some of the many possible conflicts that a union representative can provide advocacy for and hopefully ameliorate. Whether you are raising the issue or are the subject of a complaint, your campus union representative can help you navigate the contract and understand your options for dealing with a wide variety of conflicts.

When to notify the Union?

All administrators should be aware that any faculty member is entitled to union representation at any meeting with a direct supervisor, other administrator or District employee (e.g., HR) for any reason or no reason at all. Contrary to some beliefs, union representation is not limited to disciplinary action. Whether and how often any faculty member chooses to invoke their right to representation is a personal decision dependent on a number of factors, such as the quality of the relationship between the administrator and the employee, the subject matter of the meeting, the comfort level of the faculty being represented, the potential consequences resulting from the meeting, and so on.

Before contacting an administrator

While there are no hard and fast guidelines for requesting representation, if you just think you might want representation for an interaction with administration, here are some simple steps to follow:

  1. Go to aft1493.org. There you can find your campus representatives. Please only contact your representative on her/his “aft1493” email address using your personal (not SMCCD!) email address. Never contact us on the District email server as all emails exchanged on SMCCD are property of the District and can be seen by District officials.
  2. While you’re at the website, open up the Contract and scan it for language and articles pertaining to your issue. The table of contents is hyperlinked to each article for ease of navigation. The more you can do upfront to identify what the contract does and does not protect you from, the more strategic you (and your representative) can be in approaching the situation at hand.
  3. Reaching out to a rep does not commit you to receiving representation. We sometimes get faculty reaching out to talk through an issue or just start a timeline/paper trail on an issue, even if they never seek in-person representation. We can educate or offer suggestions for approaching an issue if you prefer not to be actively represented.
  4. If you do seek in-person representation, the next step after reaching out is to schedule a preparatory meeting. It is important that any faculty member seeking representation have a frank, honest and purposeful meeting with their union rep prior to meeting with a Dean, upper management or HR. During these meetings, the rep and faculty discuss the nature and history of the conflict, the potential outcomes, and strategies for approaching the issue. Investigations and disciplinary hearings, in particular, are pseudo-legal proceedings. While none of the reps on the EC are practicing attorneys, we are present to assure fairness in investigative and disciplinary procedures. We work with faculty to help them make their strongest case and understand how the contract, code of conduct, and employee manual might be used either against them or in their favor.
  5. Typically during the preparatory meeting, the rep and faculty member will agree on a game plan for the meeting. This game plan is the guide for the discussion with the dean, HR or other administrator.

Why bother with representation anyway?

Oftentimes faculty members may be reluctant to request representation either fearing that it may make them look “difficult” to their supervisor or believing that their case isn’t serious enough to warrant representation. Surprisingly, the presence of a union rep can often de-escalate employee-administrator tensions rather than inflame them further. Having a third party with deep understanding of the contract can, in many cases, expedite resolution that upholds the contract and leaves the dignity of both parties intact. In instances when a violation of the contract has occurred, a first step in our grievance procedure is to make a good faith effort to correct the violation before activating the official grievance protocol. So it is best to involve a union rep early in the process of filing a potential grievance as we can not only expedite the process, but be sure that critical time frames are met that are outlined in the grievance procedure.

When in doubt, contact a union representative. Recently, a faculty member from one of our campuses was terminated following an allegation of discrimination. This instructor waived his right to Union representation and did not reach out to the Union until he had already been terminated and it was too late to reverse course. When we asked him why he chose not to exercise his right to representation while the investigation was active, he said, “I didn’t think it was that serious.” He was wrong.

During disciplinary proceedings and investigative interviews, Human Resources and administrators are obliged to inform faculty of their right to union representation, but only once. They will proceed without the union if the faculty member appears unrepresented. Furthermore, the union has no way of knowing which faculty members are under investigation or disciplinary proceedings at any given time (HR does not give us a list). It is entirely incumbent on the faculty member to request representation. While we cannot protect faculty members from the consequences of their actions, we can protect them against biased, coercive, irregular or botched investigative or disciplinary procedures. Without representation, faculty may be unaware about developments or processes that are actually problematic or potential violations, or they may be overly concerned about procedures that are standard and necessary.

Being your best witness

Meetings with administrators are not courtroom dramas. However, meetings can be more consequential than many faculty might realize and can escalate out of control if they are not approached thoughtfully and with care. Over the past couple of years of representing faculty, I’ve seen some issues resolve tidily with elegance, dignity and plenty of satisfaction to go around (on both the part of faculty and administration). I’ve also seen both faculty and administrators unnecessarily inflame and exacerbate issues that could have been more easily resolvable. Based on these observations, I’m offering a list of tips to faculty members to consider when preparing for a represented encounter, whether it involves a grievance, an investigation, discipline or another matter of consequence.

  1. Be honest and candid with your representative. It is very important that the rep understand all of the history and issues at play to offer the best guidance and representation. Feelings of embarrassment, shame, or righteousness are natural when confronting workplace conflict, but they should not color or cover the truth. During an investigation, for instance, there will always be another side to the story that will come out. You want your representative to have all the information ahead of time. We can only offer guidance and support based on the facts that you tell us. If some fact or story comes up in an interview or meeting that we weren’t prepared for, the likelihood of a positive outcome typically goes down.
  2. Prepare a statement and read it aloud during your meeting or interview. After having a preparatory meeting with your rep, prepare a statement to submit as evidence in an investigation or something that could be used as notes while you discuss the issue with administration. Sometimes meetings, interviews and hearings can be very high pressure. Whether you are being investigated or accused of something or you are filing a grievance about something done to you, you want to set the tone of the conversation. You want to lead your testimony with your narrative. A personal statement can answer many questions for an investigator and lead the conversation proactively.
  3. Explain your intent and rationale. If you are accused of something, it’s important that you can clearly articulate the intent or theory behind the action that you are being accused of. If there is a teaching strategy at the heart of the complaint, you want the complainant and administration to understand precisely why you’ve made the curricular or pedagogical choices you did. If you are filing a grievance, it’s equally important that you illustrate and articulate the harm resulting from the grievance that you are bringing.
  4. Own your mistakes. We all make mistakes. There is no shame in showing contrition when there is something that has led to a complaint. Anyone of us can inadvertently offend, embarrass or otherwise harm a student or colleague. If the complaint involves a student, it is appropriate to try to see the issue from a student’s perspective. Even if you don’t believe you have violated the rights or trust of a student, it’s important to show that you have tried to empathize with a student. Appearing obstinate, unempathetic, clueless, or self-righteous might help the case of your accuser. The truth will likely come out. If you have done something that could have resulted in some form of harm to a student, it’s important to acknowledge that. Conversely, if you are expressing a grievance, be receptive to contrition from administrators and look for solutions.
  5. Stick to the script (as best you can). You and your representative will, together, develop a game plan with talking points to guide your testimony and discussion during your interview, hearing or meeting. Take notes. Print out the email. Be sure to address the points that you have agreed on. It’s very easy to get side-tracked in the heat of the moment. There is usually a good reason that those talking points were thought through and agreed upon. Not all points carry equal weight, so you want to discuss points in the order that you’ve agreed upon. You want to emphasize the points that you’ve decided need emphasizing. And, you want to avoid or minimize the points that you’ve decided needed to be minimized. This might seem like basic advice, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen faculty members “go off the rails” during these meetings—when they’ve thought through very compelling talking points, no less. It can be very difficult and awkward to steer the conversation back to the key points of import after that detour has been taken.

Union representatives are your colleagues. Our work is twofold—to assure optimal working conditions for faculty and optimal learning conditions for students. Fortunately, the two goals are complementary, as Rick Collenberg of the Century Foundation explains, “When you improve working conditions for faculty, you improve learning conditions for students.” When I represent a faculty member, I’m thinking about how I assure a fair and just process for resolving this conflict. It is essential for students and faculty alike to trust that they have an accessible, transparent, civilized, reasonable and fair procedure in place for addressing and resolving conflicts and disputes.