April 20, 2017
by Chuck Doran
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 about the word’s origin, 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, ombudsmen (recognized by the International Ombudsman Association as a gender-neutral label) carry on this tradition by providing independent, impartial, and confidential services to companies, universities, 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 ombudsman has allowed me to expand my mediation skills in an entirely new and challenging way.
My work as an ombudsman began in 1995, when I completed “Ombuds 101” with the International Ombudsman Association. Ombuds 101 gives academics, administrators, mediators, and others information on how to set up and execute an effective ombuds office. Since then, I have served as a “classical” ombudsman as chair of NE-ACR’s Ombudsman Service and as an external “organizational” ombudsman with a private company in Boston.
While Wikipedia may not always be a perfect source of information, the online free encyclopedia offers the following helpful description of the two ombuds models, classical and organizational. “The organizational ombudsman role has evolved from ‘classical’ ombudsman roots,” the website says. “The classical ombudsman appeared in Sweden in the early 1800s as an independent high-level public official responsible to the parliament or legislature and appointed by constitutional or legislative provisions to monitor the administrative activities of government. It is, however, also the case that the organizational ombudsman role has been frequently been “re-invented” by employers who did not know of the classical ombudsman but valued the attributes of the (function). The concept has been widely implemented and has been spread around the globe.”
Recognizing that consumers of mediation, arbitration, and other ADR processes had no way to register their concerns or complaints, I worked with Dina Lynch Eisenberg, Ros Cresswell, and others to establish NEACR’s Ombudsman Program in 2005. As chair of that program, I function 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 are dissatisfied with the services of an ADR practitioner based in New England.
I also worked as an external organizational ombudsman with a national company based in Boston, where my task is to surface and resolve work-related issues for more than 800 employees. I’ll focus on my work as an organizational ombuds in this article.
Four principles govern my work as an organizational ombuds:
For employees, the benefits are many. Companies with organizational ombudsmen report that their workers appreciate having a confidential, company-sanctioned avenue to express concerns, review policies, explore options, and resolve conflicts. The ombuds’ adherence to strict confidentiality helps ease employees’ fear of retaliation, and the informality of the process, literally and figuratively separate from corporate rules and structures, can encourage people to work through their concerns early on, before conflicts escalate into formal complaints against another employee or the employer.
Management also benefits from the ombuds’ regular direct reports about issues and trends, reports that provide an opportunity to address these worries early and often, before they hurt productivity, lower morale, or fester into a lawsuit. Having an established, confidential, and anonymous function also helps businesses comply with requirements outlined in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the US Sentencing Guidelines, and other rules that require companies to provide confidential and independent channels for employees to express concerns.
There are two primary types of organizational ombuds – internal and external. Internal ombuds are usually full-time employees who run an independent office within a company. They are often selected from within the company because they’re familiar with the corporate culture and generally viewed by employees and management as knowledgeable, approachable, and trustworthy. If an internal ombuds is part time and performs another job for the company, the other role must not compromise the independence, neutrality, confidentiality, or informality of the ombuds role. IOA’s bylaws and membership form state that an internal ombudsman cannot also have a role “which would make him or her an agent of the organization for the purposes of notice.”
External ombuds bring a different set of skills to the function, which often includes ADR experience, true independence, and process expertise. I have found that not being “an insider” is both an advantage and a challenge that informs my approach as a practitioner, and that is one of curiosity about the company – its people, history, norms, and culture. My experience as a professional mediator and trainer also brings credibility and skills that I use regularly.
Mediators looking to make a living in this field may be interested to know that today there are more, and usually more long-lasting, job opportunities for ombudsmen than for mediators. This is due, in large part, to the fact that while most mediations are short-term, goal-oriented processes, the work of an organizational ombuds can stretch over many years, as the ombuds learns to understand a corporation’s culture and builds long-term, trusting relationships with both managers and employees.
For mediators considering ombuds work, I suggest researching the role thoroughly and taking time to meet with internal and external ombuds at companies, universities, and governmental agencies. I’ve found that two things are true with most of the ombuds I know 1.) they eat lunch every day and 2.) they are willing to talk with aspiring practitioners about their work (over lunch). I also suggest joining the International Ombudsman Association (http://www.ombudsassociation.org), taking IOA’s Foundations of Organizational Ombudsman Practice (formerly known as “Ombuds 101”), and checking online resources, including Tom Kosakowski’s blog, (www.ombuds-blog.blogspot.com), that provide current and future practitioners with up-to-date information.
Chuck Doran is a mediator, ombudsman, and the founder of MWI in Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-895-4026.