Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
November 5, 1999

Call her a coach, but not a miracle worker

by Anne Krapfl
Don't let the gold wand deceive you when you step into Marlise McCammon's third floor Beardshear office. It looks good enough to work some magic, but McCammon, Iowa State's first employee relations director, says she doesn't have everyanswer. The wand, a gift to her several years ago, is a daily reminder of that truth.

"I'm not a doctor, I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a psychologist, I'm not a miracle worker," she said. "But I can help anyone work through issues if they're willing and able."

Employee relations is a big umbrella, but as she defines it, McCammon's job is to help employees deal with workplace conflict or concerns that don't involve illegal activities, such as discrimination or assault. The problems can involve seemingly inconsequential things -- a co-worker's radio station of choice or unprofessional attire, for example -- or bigger deals, such as job performance or perceptions of harassment. All are legitimate and all receive attention, she said.

"If it's something you've thought about for more than two days, come talk to me," McCammon advised.

Her goal is to provide assistance in as unobtrusive a style as possible. Sometimes that involves coaching -- identifying options for action and the possible outcomes of each, or role-playing a possible dialogue between two people at odds. Sometimes, she is asked to sit in on a dialogue between employees, as pure observer or as conversation facilitator. And some-times the best solution is a referral to a more appropriate unit on campus, such as public safety, Affirmative Action, the employee assistance program, dean of students office or legal services.

"We're trying to develop a consultative, problem-solving group of people at Iowa State," she said. "We're like the six blind men holding different parts of the elephant. We all 'see' the elephant differently, and that can really help."

Whatever her role, McCammon said that over time, she has learned to facilitate, not "manage" situations. The difference, she notes, is huge.

"It's important that the parties 'own' the conflict and I remain a third party," she explained. "I want the parties to also 'own' the solution so that it's upheld.

"It's a hard thing to do, but I have to stay disinterested in the outcome and content to move the process along. If I get too involved, the situation only intensifies," McCammon said.

Generalist, yes
McCammon isn't purely a conflict resolution specialist. She also represents Iowa State on the bargaining team that negotiates contracts for union employees; handles grievances presented by union members; coordinates the use of the Employee Assistance Program; assists employees in worker's compensation, disability, family medical leave or rehab cases; and offers training sessions on employee services and rights, such as the Family Medical Leave Act, catastrophic leave, team building, Americans with Disabilities Act, conflict management and others related to the workplace.

Prior to arriving at Iowa State last April, McCammon spent seven years as director of employee relations and an affirmative action officer at Wichita State University, Kansas. She also spent about 3 1/2 years with NCR Engineering/Manufacturing, Wichita, where she oversaw labor relations functions for bargaining unit employees and later managed the compensation and employment programs. She is a certified civil mediator (Kansas) and says she frequently uses her mediation skills to help resolve workplace issues.

The Iowa State position appealed to her, she said, because she is "best suited" for a generalist position.

"I like the variety of working with people, policies and procedures," she said. "I like facilitating assistance and finding ways to streamline what we do to make the system less bureaucratic.

"When you're dealing with people in crisis, the last thing they need from you is a lot of red tape," she said. "That's part of the client service we're trying to build."

Talk it over
Whether the conflict is personal or professional, McCammon said communication is key.

"A lot of people don't know how to articulate their concerns. Sometimes they're worried about hurting people's feelings," she said. "But when they stuff those feelings down and assume their co-workers or their supervisors can read their minds, eventually we have a little explosion."

Communication is less dramatic than a transfer or a resignation to resolve a problem, but just as effective, McCammon said.

"Once we give people feedback on their behavior or their work performance, once we put people on notice, we can hold them responsible."

McCammon admits it took her years to develop her facilitating skills. As a student at an all-girls school in New Orleans, she grew up with an understanding that it's impolite to ask questions.

"I was taught that if someone wants you to know something, they'll offer it," she said. "I had to confront my own culture and learn to ask questions in order to do what I do."

Raising two daughters also has provided practice at conflict resolution, she added with a smile.

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