March 10, 2022
You may have heard the word “ombuds” before, but you might not be sure what they do. Within a company or organization, an ombuds is someone who assists employees seeking to raise and resolve issues. Imagine you are in one of the following situations:
Many companies around the world, from Pfizer to McKinsey to the American Red Cross, employ ombuds to help employees in these types of situations. No matter the organization they work for, ombuds serve as an independent, neutral, confidential, and informal resource to help employees resolve conflict and solve problems.
That’s a big task, and you’re probably wondering how an ombuds achieves it. Below, we summarize the seven functions of an organizational ombuds.
Conflict is inevitable in the workplace, and everyone from new hires to senior managers are subject to it. Most workplace conflicts are effectively resolved through informal channels. Sometimes, though, a seemingly small conflict festers and creates a bigger issue for team dynamics, productivity, and morale. Employees may struggle to resolve the issue on their own. They may also rightly recognize that their conflict is not appropriate to raise in a formal channel. They want to fix it, but they aren’t sure how.
As an alternative to formal channels, ombuds provide all employees the opportunity to speak openly and honestly about what is bothering them in a safe place. These independent and neutral conversations with an ombuds provide clarity, perspective, and guidance. Ombuds’ goal is to help employees manage their own conflicts more effectively, rather than avoiding them or raising them through formal channels.
After listening openly and honestly to anything employees have to say, ombuds can help employees by brainstorming solutions and making suggestions. Their goal is to empower employees by collaborating in the brainstorming process. Ombuds also work with employees to make sure their recommendations meet employees’ interests and needs.
Ombuds’ suggestions can range from small, specific changes in a single employee-manager relationship to improvements that could be implemented throughout an entire department. They draw from their expertise, past experiences, knowledge of the organization, and understanding of what is important to the employee to contribute a range of potential solutions.
Ombuds are a source of knowledge for how an organization’s processes work. They spend time learning about each organization’s complex structure. If you have a complaint, an ombuds knows who to go to and what options are available to you.
Ombuds also coordinate to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. They will follow-up on issues, re-raising them to make sure they are dealt with. Ombuds facilitate process and ensure every person in that process feels heard. Moreover, ombuds act as an organizational check and balance, increasing accountability and ethical behavior for all employees.
Ombuds are a source of knowledge on company policies and resources. Managers and employees may know about their company’s policies, standards of conduct, or rules at a high level, but they may not know as much about their details. Ombuds know the details of these policies and can use this knowledge to assist employees in navigating company rules and standards.
Ombuds also facilitate referrals to other appropriate company resources. Employees may not realize that they can work with HR to resolve certain concerns, access professional development resources such as training and coaching, receive mental health counseling, or many other benefits companies provide to help their employees achieve success. An ombuds will assess an employee’s concerns and interests and connect them with the right company resources.
Ombuds can also provide a variety of trainings designed to meet the specific needs of an organization. These trainings can range from individual coaching to department-wide, or even company-wide, presentations. For instance, if two employees complain about working together, an ombuds may create a specific training on different communication styles to help the two employees better understand each other. An ombuds may also hold general trainings on topics such as the importance of communication, negotiation theory, or meeting facilitation.
Sometimes, senior leaders only hear about a problem in their company once it is too late to properly address it. Employees may fear retaliation, feel burnt out, or not know how to elevate their concerns beyond their direct manager. Their concerns and feedback never make their way to the leaders who can enact change.
Ombuds provide employees the confidentiality necessary to garner honest, direct feedback that leaders can act upon. In particular, outsourced ombuds provide an added layer of independence that promotes employees’ comfort and allows the ombuds to get an honest pulse of employees’ concerns.
As ombuds work with employees, they track trends and themes arising from their concerns. These trends are reported to senior leadership, along with the ombuds’ recommendations for resolving and managing employees’ concerns. This allows an organization to proactively address issues, which builds trust with employees.
If an employee has a concern, big or small, an ombuds is one call away. Through an informal, quick conversation, an employee can find solutions to everyday conflict and concerns. The ease of connecting with an ombuds allows employees to address their problems earlier, which allows problems to be solved more efficiently and with much less impact on productivity and relationships.
Not only can an ombuds program help employees navigate one-off concerns, but it can also promote productivity throughout the entire workforce by building trust with employees. With an ombuds program providing a consistent and reliable pulse of employees’ concerns, senior leaders can respond with understanding and effective solutions. The creates a high-trust environment, and research shows that people working at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout.
In this way, ombuds promote employees’ efficiency and productivity, whether they work with them directly or not. That’s a high payoff for an informal, accessible service.
Setting up an in-house ombuds program at your company can be challenging, time consuming and overwhelming. MWI’s outsourced ombuds program can help you think through your needs and if helpful, create and implement a new ombuds programs for your company, organization or university.
Contact MWI’s Director of Ombuds, Josh Hoch, to see if an outsourced ombuds can assist your organization.