The word “ombudsman” comes from a Swedish term that dates back to 1809, when the Swedish parliament decided to protect citizens’ rights by establishing a supervisory agency independent of the government. Dictionaries differ, but many in the field prefer one scholar’s definition of the ombudsman (or ombuds or ombudsperson) as “a person who has an ear to the people.” Today, ombuds carry on this tradition by providing independent, impartial, and confidential services to companies, educational and other institutions, and governments throughout the world. In responding to inquiries and complaints, these “ears to the people” help ensure that every voice is heard without fear of reprisal, retaliation, or loss of privacy. I’ve been mediating and training in conflict resolution for over 25 years, finding, like many others, great fulfillment and purpose in my work. While my devotion to mediation has grown in that time, I’ve found that working as an ombuds has allowed me to expand my mediation skills in an entirely new and challenging way. My work as an ombuds began in 1995, when I completed “Ombuds 101” (which is now called “Foundations of Organizational Ombudsman Practice”) with the International Ombudsman Association. This program provides dispute resolution professionals, academics, administrators, and others information on how to set up and execute an effective ombuds office. Since then, I served as an ombuds as chair of the New England Chapter of the Association for Conflict Resolution (NE-ACR) Ombuds Program– where potential users were not limited to a defined pool, such as being employees of a company. Recognizing that consumers of mediation, arbitration, and other alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes had no way to register their concerns or complaints, I worked with a few colleagues to establish NE-ACR’s Ombuds Program in 2005. As chair of that program, I functioned within a “classical” ombuds model, fielding complaints about how an ADR process was managed by the provider, not about the outcome, from ADR consumers who weredissatisfied with the services of an ADR practitioner based in New England. I also work as an external “organizational” ombuds fora few companies in Boston, where my role is to surface and resolve work-related issues for staff. My work as an organizational ombuds is the focus of the remainder of this article. Four principles govern the work of an organizational ombuds:
- Neutrality. As a designated neutral, an ombuds represents no one and represents everyone in the organization equally while upholding a commitment to fairness in the workplace. Although an ombuds does not serve as an advocate for any party to a dispute, he or she does advocate for fair processes. As a designated neutral, an ombuds avoids acting in a manner that might create a conflict of interest. In my work with Boston companies, this means I walk a fine line between building trusting relationships with all employees and with management, while not appearing “too chummy” with either, such as eating lunch with one side in a public space at the company.
- Informality. An ombuds focuses on alternative methods of resolving problems outside the established formal institutional processes. He or she does this in an informal, off-the-record manner by listening to employee concerns, helping employees identify their interests, providing information about company policies and procedures that apply to the employee’s situation, developing a range of options with the employee, and making informal inquiries, always with the employee’s permission. To ensure his or her role is informal, an ombuds doesnot participate in or conduct formal investigations or testify in any administrative or legal proceedings on behalf of an employee or on behalf of the company.
- Independence. An ombuds is independent in structure, function, and appearance to the highest degree possible at the company. By definition and in practice, an ombuds cannot be part of any department at the company. One very visible example of this is the fact that all my meetings with employees and management are by appointment, and I do not have an office at the company. One key benefit of this setup is that employees who meet with me do so in private, usually offsite, without advertising the fact to coworkers and supervisors.
- Confidentiality. All communications with an ombuds are considered confidential. The only exception to this commitment is where there appears to be an imminent risk of serious harm to the employee or to another person at the company. Organizational ombuds promise not to divulge the source of any communication, even if that means not keeping records with identifying information of visitors. This confidentiality works two ways: As a matter of policy, a company cannot call the ombuds to disclose confidential communications or serve as a witness, and employees who consult an ombuds agree not to ask him or her to testify about anything said or written in confidence. Because of the confidential, neutral, informal, and independent nature of the ombuds’ role, communication with the ombuds does not constitute notice to the company. But the organizational ombuds isn’t a quiet, confidential dead-end street for employees’ complaints and concerns. While protecting individuals’ privacy and honoring the confidentiality of all their communications, an ombuds provides “anonymized” reports to senior management about general trends and employees’ concerns in the workplace.