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Ombuds Role and Risk Management

I’ll be participating later this week in a URMIA (University Risk Management & Insurance Association) regional conference in Raleigh where I’ll have an opportunity to talk with attendees about how an ombuds can help an organization address and manage risks. I’m attending on behalf of the International Ombuds Association (IOA) along with its Executive Director Chuck Howard and my ombuds colleague from UNC Chapel Hill, University Ombuds Dawn Osborne-Adams.

Per the IOA, here are some of the features of the ombuds role that connect with “risk management” considerations:

     •  Ombuds Office is a safe place that permits confidential communications
     •  Ombuds provides information and guidance to help resolve conflicts and surface issues
     •  Ombuds is a knowledgeable resource — able to deal with all types of issues in all sectors
     •  Ombuds is accessible and confidential
              No barriers to access
              No uncertainty as to what will happen with contact
              No retaliation for contacting the ombuds
     • Ombuds can identify and share issues without breaching confidentiality
     • Ombuds can surface systemic and campus climate issues
Additionally, here are aspects for having an Ombuds Office to supplement existing risk management services:
     • The “Blue Uniform” problem with “police” role of formal channels —
            Lack of confidentiality; duty to report
     • Hotlines are not generally utilized and not suitable for common employment issues
     • Uncertainty–causes non-reporting
            “Am I right?” syndrome
            What will happen if I report?  Loss of control?
     • Diversity and different cultural approaches and assumptions
     • Fear of Retaliation causes non-reporting; even assuming no official retaliation –
           Peer retaliation
           Below the radar retaliation
           Ripple effect from stories of retaliation elsewhere

Combining the ombuds features with the reasons to have such an office, the IOA explains, “An Ombuds Program provides a place where people can receive confidential guidance BEFORE they take action. This makes it more likely that an issue will be surfaced even if someone is not identified as the person who raised it.” Additionally, in today’s challenging environment people need a safe place to bring concerns, leaders need alternate channels to learn about important, unknown, or undetectable problems and trends to better manage a university, and universities need to be – -and be seen as — fair, ethical, and trustworthy institutions.

An Ombuds Office can help your organization address issues and, thus, help manage risk.

     • Ombuds extends your reach to learn about problems — not a “blue uniform”
     • No barriers to use for everyone
     • Knowledgeable resource with peripheral vision
     • Concern for systemic issues, fair process, and helping people
     • Confidential yet proactive in surfacing issues that should be brought forward
     • Skilled and experienced in conflict and problem resolution
     • Avoid litigation by de-escalating conflict before positions become irreversibly adversarial
     • Feed-back to senior leaders

In conclusion, an Ombuds Office can be another resource to help organizations fulfill their missions while addressing a broad range of workplace issues.  Thus, when you want help and are not sure where to turn – Go Ombuds !