What Is A Corporate Or Other Non-Government Organizational Ombuds? The Cambridge Dictionary of English defines Ombudsman [used here as a gender neutral term] as “someone who works for a government or large organization and deals with the complaints made against it.” True, but not fully helpful; what is meant by “deals” with the complaints?
Perhaps more helpful are the remarks of the International Ombudsman Association, “[a]t the most fundamental level, an ombudsman is one who assists individuals and groups in the resolution of conflicts or concerns. … Ombudsmen work in all types of organizations, including government agencies, colleges and universities, corporations, hospitals and other medical facilities, and news organizations.
“The organizational ombudsman is defined as: ‘a designated neutral who is appointed or employed by an organization to facilitate the informal resolution of concerns of employees, managers, students and, sometimes, external clients of the organization’ (citation omitted). …
“The primary duties of an organizational ombudsman are (1) to work with individuals and groups in an organization to explore and assist them in determining options to help resolve conflicts, problematic issues or concerns, and (2) to bring systemic concerns to the attention of the organization for resolution.
“An organizational ombudsman operates in a manner to preserve the confidentiality of those seeking services, maintains a neutral/impartial position with respect to the concerns raised, works at an informal level of the organizational system, and is independent of formal organizational structures.
“Activities and functions most frequently undertaken by an ombudsman include, but are not limited to:
- Listens and understands issues while remaining neutral with respect to the facts. The ombudsman doesn’t listen to judge or to decide who is right or wrong. The ombudsman listens to understand the issue from the perspective of the individual. This is a critical step in developing options for resolution.
- Assists in reframing issues and developing and helping individuals evaluate options. This helps individuals identify the interests of various parties to the issues and helps focus efforts on potential options to meet those interests.
- Guides or coaches individuals to deal directly with other parties, including the use of formal resolution resources of the organization. An ombudsman often seeks to help individuals improve their skill and their confidence in giving voice to their concerns directly.
- Refers individuals to appropriate resolution resources. An ombudsman may refer individuals to one or more formal organizational resources that can potentially resolve the issue.
- Assists in surfacing issues to formal resolution channels. When an individual is unable or unwilling to surface a concern directly, the ombudsman can assist by helping give voice to the concern and /or creating an awareness of the issue among appropriate decision-makers in the organization.
- Facilitates informal resolution processes. An ombudsman may help to resolve issues between parties through various types of informal mediation.
- Identifies new issues and opportunities for systemic change for the organization. The unique positioning of the ombudsman serves to provide unfiltered information that can produce insight to issues and resolutions. The ombudsman is a source of detection and early warning of new issues and a source of suggestions of systemic change to improve existing processes.” (Viewed 10/16/2019 at https://www.ombudsassociation.org/what-is-an-organizational-ombuds).
USING A CORPORATE OR OTHER ORGANIZATIONAL OMBUDS: With the above definitions and roles in mind, one can readily see how the use of ombudsmen can help resolve problems before they become lawsuits. In fact, consistent, proactive evaluations of organizational systems and human interactions by ombuds can result in recommendations for policy changes that not only head off lawsuits, but also reduce the occurrence of conflicts in the first place.
Full time, in-house, organizational ombudsmen positions are becoming more common, especially in larger business organizations and universities. Regardless of the number of ombudsmen employed, situations may occur where multiple complaints have arisen and full time personnel are too taxed to handle yet another problem, or there arises a conflict of interest between in-house ombudsmen and the complaining party. That is when use of an outside ombuds should be considered.
Of course, any organization without in-house conflict resolution resources, regardless of size, should also evaluate whether outside, independent ombudsmen should be retained when any potentially significant conflict seems likely to arise, or has already arisen.
If your organization is facing such concerns and would like to explore outside ombudsman services, perhaps Judge Smith can help. Please call anytime, +1 (253) 649-5909, or email JudgeSmith@CommercialADR.com; please, no confidential information in emails).