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|IAM Blog: Chuck Doran|
Mediator as Ombuds
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:
For employees, the benefits are many. Companies with organizational ombuds report that their workers appreciate having a confidential, company-sanctioned avenue to express concerns, review policies, explore options, and resolve conflicts. An 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 reporting 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.
For professionals 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 each 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 the Foundations course, 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.
© 2018 Chuck Doran