Inside Outsider – The Independence of the Organizational Ombuds

 

What makes an organizational ombuds office different from other available resources?  I often get this question and, in answer, I point to the IOA (International Ombudsman Association) Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice that include Independence, Confidentiality, Informality, and Impartiality. While some resources within an organization have some “parts” of these as features, only the organizational ombuds has all four as its core standards.

Today, let’s explore Independence.

The IOA Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice state the following on Independence:

Code of Ethics –  Independence
The Ombudsman is independent in structure, function, and appearance to the highest degree possible within the organization.

Standards of Practice – Independence

1.1  The Ombudsman Office and the Ombudsman are independent from other organizational entities.

1.2  The Ombudsman holds no other position within the organization which might compromise independence.

1.3  The Ombudsman exercises sole discretion over whether or how to act regarding an individual’s concern, a trend or concerns of multiple individuals over time. The Ombudsman may also initiate action on a concern identified through the Ombudsman’ direct observation.

1.4  The Ombudsman has access to all information and all individuals in the organization, as permitted by law.

1.5  The Ombudsman has authority to select Ombudsman Office staff and manage Ombudsman Office budget and operations.

From a practical standpoint and for potential visitors to an ombuds office, the question of interest, is “where” does the ombuds report?  If the ombuds reports administratively to the “highest degree possible” within the organization, then the Code is met. The standards spell out other aspects to create separation between the ombuds and the organization served. This is needed to help the ombuds bring an outside view of organization to the issues brought to the office.  At the same time, the office also needs connection to the organization to be effective.

One ombuds described this as being an inside-outsider and I think in terms of being separate from and connected to the organization served. Both concepts are simultaneously in play and provide the ombuds with a point of view that can be helpful. Often people bring only one perspective of a situation to the ombuds; however, considering from multiple perspectives can provide multiple paths toward resolution. We so often only “see” things from one perspective – ours – while the ombuds can help find multiple different vantage points.

At the same time, in order to help provide these different points, the ombuds also needs some  understanding and knowledge of the organization.  For example, after discussion with the ombuds, a visitor might decide that existing resources of the organization may be helpful; however, they had either not considered the option or were unaware of how the resource worked before meeting with the ombuds. Providing this type of information helps people develop options and is an important ombuds function.

Thus, next time you want multiple points of view, go visit the ombuds, the organization inside-outsider!

Impact of Ombuds Office Highlighted

 

The NC State Faculty Ombuds Office was profiled in a recent article jointly published by The Journal of the California Caucus of College and University Ombuds and the Journal of the International Ombudsman Association -“Ombuds and Conflict Resolution Specialists: Navigating Workplace Challenges in Higher Education.”  The article explores various ombuds practices and impacts on an organization based on research conducted by Nova Southeast faculty member Neil H. Katz and two of his graduate students Katherine J. Sosa and Linda N. Kovack.

The researchers identified three primary functions of an ombuds and/or conflict resolution office including (1) addressing constituent issues, (2) educational outreach, and (3) system review. In each area the ombuds sought to positively impact both the individual and the institution by providing ombuds services within a framework of independence, confidentiality, informality, and impartiality.

Overall the impacts were seen as positive and the researchers conclude that institutions that support ombuds and/or conflict resolution programs “are implementing ‘best practices.'”  It’s certainly the goal of the NC State Faculty & Staff Ombuds office to support constructive engagement around conflicts or issues of concern. And, doing so, may help all utilize best practices and promote a vibrant workplace.

 

 

What Happens When you Visit the NC State Faculty & Staff Ombuds Office?

 

How does the NC State Faculty & Staff Ombuds office do its work? I often get asked – “What happens when someone comes to the office?”  Well – let’s pull back the curtain!

Let’s start with scheduling. People can call, email or sometimes meet the ombuds in person – (note that email is not a confidential form of communication) and based on case data, Faculty initial contact is 51% email, 45% phone, and 4% in-person, while for Staff, contact is 28% email, 63% phone, and 9% in-person.  However the contact, we set up a time that works and I usually host people at the Faculty & Staff Ombuds office that is located just off campus – 112 Cox Ave., Ste. 212 & 213 with parking available. I’ve also met people at other on and off campus locations.

When the meeting time arrives and the location is my office, there is a knock on the door and I greet folks at the entry. We enter and sit at a small round table. I offer coffee or tea or water and have chocolate strategically placed on the table!  I introduce myself and explain the role of an ombuds – to help individuals, groups, and the university – solve issues / concerns while adhering to four core principles of ombuds practice – independence, confidentiality, informality, and impartiality.  Our office uses an Ombuds Role Disclosure  form to share and review this information.

Then I usually invite people to introduce themselves, their role at the university, as well as any other information they wish to share. Usually this also includes their concerns and why they’ve contacted the office. Once issues / concerns are shared we then clarify aspects as needed and I seek to understand what’s most important to the person (the interests behind the presented situation) and what they are seeking as an outcome. Then I work with the person to explore options.

We review as many different options as we can think of together and I share information about existing University resources that might be able to assist. Once options are noted, these are reviewed with the person to try to match options to the underlying interests and outcomes noted earlier in the discussion. This is where I particularly remind people that while the ombuds supports people, I don’t take a “side” in an issue or serve as an advocate for the person over another person or the university – I hold the middle.

At the conclusion of the conversation, there are usually several options to consider and even try out going forward. There are also times when the ombuds may take on an active role to help facilitate a conversation or may make an inquiry to get additional information. Sometimes the one meeting completes the ombuds service while other situations call for additional meetings and follow up conversations.

That essentially outlines what happens in a visit to my office. I don’t keep records with identifiable information yet I do track types of issues / concerns and aggregate data to spot trends. And, when appropriate, I’ll reach out to various levels across the university and share trends and/or surface issues while protecting the confidentiality of the source.  I only share this type of feedback with the permission of the person or if the issue can be shared in a manner that does not disclose the source (and I always talk to the person as to both whether and how this might work).

Hopefully this description demystifies a visit to the NC State Faculty & Staff Ombuds Office and let me know if I can help you.

Best wishes for the holiday season.