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Benefits of an Ombuds in Hindsight

By Marcus Stergio

Uber. Microsoft. Twitter. You know the names. You use their products, or know someone who has. What you may not know is that each of these household names have been publicly blamed for gender discrimination at some point within the past two years. Female employees have indicted Uber for simply “slapping the wrist” of a sexually propositioning and harassing manager, Microsoft for harnessing a culture of systemic inequality, and Twitter for denying promotions to and driving women from the company.

As a conflict resolution practitioner, I have no place in speculating who might be at fault. That obligation belongs to the courts. Still, certainly worth questioning is what might have prevented litigation, or the mess in which these organizations have found themselves entangled.

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What Is an Ombuds?

Enter the ombuds. Or ombudsman. Or ombudsperson. It doesn’t make much of a difference what you call them. The sheer fact that you are speaking to one is a good thing, something that Uber, Microsoft, and Twitter might wish they had done long ago. An organizational ombuds is a neutral third party whose primary function is to provide confidential, impartial, independent and informal assistance to the workplace. Managers and employees are eligible to receive ombuds services, as are an organizations’ clients and stakeholders. The ombudsperson is available privately and discreetly to understand and address individual or group concerns.

You might be wondering why a female employee feeling discriminated against by management would be comfortable speaking to someone internally. There are standards that an ombuds is held to, including a commitment to only share what they’ve been permitted to share, which provides protection and addresses the visitor’s concerns when reporting misconduct.

As for their orientation within the organization, an internal ombuds is an employee of the company who remains independent from management. They function as their own organizational department and maintain strict confidentiality when listening to and speaking with visitors of their office. Meanwhile, an external ombudsman is not an employee, but more of a consultant who provides impartial and informal assistance when their services are requested. As you might imagine, there are advantages to both approaches for both the employee and the company as a whole, yet vital above all else is the mere presence of one, internal or external, in all large organizations.

The Benefit of an Organizational Ombuds

As for the companies in question? Ombuds services were not available to the employees crying foul or to those accused of wrongdoing. Sure, the word “ombudsman” appears on Microsoft’s Consumer Complaints webpage, but consumers aren’t the ones we’re worried about right now. Who do employees approach when feeling undermined by sexist co-workers? Their managers? The same people who are apparently instituting the discrimination?

At Uber, the Human Resources team informed a female employee that the accused manager was a “high performer” and would be given a warning, but that a deeper internal investigation would take place. Ok, but by whom? Human Resources is management. Over and above the obvious concerns surrounding their designation of a harassment suspect as a “high performer,” the reality is simple; HR is not informal and they are not independent.

Similarly, Twitter has vowed to “take a look” and raise its female population from 10% of the company’s tech workforce and 21% of overall leadership to 16% and 25% respectively. An important initiative, yet one that could have been completed in tandem with protecting the company’s name and allowing conflict management resources to proactively address complaints of unconstitutional behavior.

In the end, the question rests: why did these companies lack an ombudsperson to begin with? It remains to be answered not only in these three but in large organizations worldwide.

Leadership, negotiation skills, cultural sensitivity, anti-discrimination, conflict management; you name it and there is a training for it. Group facilitation, mediation, one on one conversations with aggrieved parties; the value of being heard and understood is universally priceless. With an ombuds, companies have a professional who is not only capable of but well-versed at providing all of these services.

Uber. Microsoft. Twitter. Organizations across the globe would benefit from supporting their employees with an ombuds. Don’t let yours be the next to realize it only in hindsight.

Download MWI’s Free Article:  What to Consider When Selecting an Ombuds

Marcus Stergio is the Manager of Commercial and Corporate Programs at MWI. You can contact him at 617-895-4029 or mstergio@mwi.org to learn more about MWI’s Organizational Ombuds Services.

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