The Power of Terminology: Navigating Workplace Issues Without Labels

By Martina Peskoller-Fuchs
Ombudsperson, European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), 

In the workplace, how we label and discuss issues can significantly impact their resolution. Terms like "conflict," "bullying," and "discrimination" carry strong connotations and can influence perceptions and outcomes. Understanding why people might avoid these terms and exploring alternative approaches can lead to more effective and empathetic problem-solving.

1)    Why People Avoid the Term "Conflict"

a)    Fear of Escalation: Labeling a problem as a conflict can make it seem more serious and intractable. People may worry that calling it a conflict will escalate the situation and make it harder to resolve.
b)    Professional Image: Admitting to being in conflict with a colleague can be seen as unprofessional or a sign of poor interpersonal skills. Employees may fear it will negatively impact their reputation or career progression.
c)    Desire for Harmony: Many workplaces value teamwork and cooperation. Employees might avoid the term "conflict" to maintain a facade of harmony and prevent disrupting the workplace atmosphere.
d)    Conflict Aversion: Some individuals are naturally conflict-averse and feel uncomfortable dealing with confrontational situations. They might downplay issues to avoid the stress and discomfort associated with conflict. This also relates to how conflicts are seen by the workplace environment. e.g. are conflicts considered a natural occurrence in human interactions, or are they seen as not acceptable, as flaws etc.?
e)    Hope for Resolution: Employees may believe that the problem can be resolved without formal intervention or without labeling it as a conflict. They might hope that the issue will resolve itself over time.
f)     Cultural Factors: In some organizational cultures, there may be an implicit or explicit expectation that conflicts should be handled privately and not acknowledged openly.
g)    Fear of Repercussions: There can be concerns about retaliation or negative consequences, especially if the colleague involved is in a position of power or has strong relationships with management. It might also relate to a lack of trust in the organizational culture and its ability to deal with conflicts once they escalated.
h)    Communication Style: Some people prefer indirect communication and might find it difficult to articulate issues openly. They may downplay problems to avoid direct confrontation. Equally they might not want to use any language that has a sense of it being emotional, unprofessional etc.
i)      Personal Boundaries: Many people worry that addressing a conflict might delve into private[1] matters, which can be uncomfortable and seen as unprofessional. They think there is no place for personal issues at the workplace and want to keep them separate.
j)      Emotional Avoidance: Conflicts are often associated with strong emotions. People may avoid labeling a situation as a conflict because they don't want to deal with the emotional aspects or give space for emotions to surface, which they may perceive as disruptive or unprofessional.

 

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Change is the only constant.... and this one is bittersweet.

12, June 2024 

As you may have heard, Lindsay Jennings - our fabulous Managing Director and Vice President of Business Development at SBI Association Management – has accepted the position of Executive Director of the Orcas Island Community Foundation. This is a very exciting opportunity for Lindsay, as she will have a direct impact in the community she calls home. We find ourselves both celebrating for her and feeling very sad for IOA.  

Lindsay has been integral to the growth of IOA since 2018 and was on the transition team right from the start. She quickly learned all things IOA, devoted 50% of her time to IOA and beautifully managed her team at SBI to support us. She also helped shepherd two executive directors, which is no small task. We have all come to rely on her calm and wise demeanor, sage counsel, and authenticity. So, this will be hard.  

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JIOA Special Issue - Call for Articles

JIOA – Special Issue Announcement

Topic: Power, Politics, and Polarization

Submission Deadline: May 1st, 2025

Organizational Ombuds, with their emphasis on conflict resolution, ethics, and systems, play a pivotal role in addressing challenges arising from power dynamics, political tensions, and societal polarization. In an era marked by the proliferation of misinformation, the erosion of trust in institutions, and the amplification of diverse voices, the ombuds profession stands at the forefront of navigating complex ethical and social issues.

This special issue aims to explore the multifaceted relationship between the ombuds field and the broader landscape of power, politics, and polarization. We invite submissions that critically examine topics such as:

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Organizational Ombuds and Artificial Intelligence

From Steen Erik Larsen, Maersk Ombuds Function

The IOA Board asked the Research and Assessment Committee to take the lead in helping members understand how they can effectively use artificial intelligence (AI), including considerations/pitfalls to pay attention to when using AI. Ideally, the Independent Voice Blog, CommUnity, Good Day IOA Videos, conferences, webinars, and informal events (i.e. Community Connections) are platforms that could be leveraged for discussion and dissemination.

By now, we expect that most ombuds have heard of Artificial Intelligence (“AI”). Stories of Large Language Models (LLMs, such as ChatGPT) that can replicate human speech and writing (and code) with shocking speed and considerable accuracy seem to be everywhere. Generative AI programs, such as Midjourney and DALL-E can create extraordinary photorealistic images based on simple text prompts. Meanwhile, “Deep Learning” programs such as AlphaFold have already solved medical and scientific problems previously thought nearly impossible. We are in a new world–one that contains potential for extraordinary benefits and risks to ombuds practice. It is certain that AI will affect the work of Organizational Ombuds in fundamental ways. Already, many ombuds are using AI, such as using Microsoft CoPilot to draft documents and articles, or even just using AI-integrated search engines. Others may be exploring ways to use LLMs to enhance productivity, for instance using ChatGPT to draft emails, refine and edit documents, or create blog posts. These uses only scratch the surface of what AI has to offer to our field. Some
other possible uses include:

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Navigating the Revised IOA Standards of Practice: Seven Significant Revisions: Cheat Sheet

by Dr. Jacqueline Villafañe, on behalf of the IOA Board SOP Work Group

May 2024

In the ever-evolving landscape of organizational ombuds services, staying abreast of industry standards is crucial for maintaining effectiveness and integrity. This was underscored by the recent revisions to the International Ombuds Association (IOA) Standards of Practice (SOP), which were initiated in 2021 and came into effect with significant changes by 2022.

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Watch the Mary Rowe Practice Survey Webinar Recording

Practice Survey in Action: Mary’s Riffs on Organizational Ombuds Sources of Power and Influence, Values, and Effectiveness and the IOA Survey

Watch our recent webinar featuring Mary Rowe and the IOA Practice Survey Team discussing why and how the IOA survey has been helpful to individual organizational ombuds and the profession. 

Thank you to everyone who participated in the Practice Survey. Results will be announced later this year. 

 

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At the Crossroads of Ombuds: A first-timer's experience at the IOA Conference

By Lana Smith-Hale, LCSW,
Assistant Ombuds, UC Santa Barbara,

As a self-proclaimed extrovert, I am still surprisingly nervous about going into a new space filled with colleagues I have never met. And as the only member of my team who attended the conference this year, I was nervously looking forward to what lay ahead. I am an Ombuds in Higher Education and am familiar with attending conferences in this sector; yet as an Ombuds with one year of experience, I felt the pressure with this experience to cement my belief if this was the right field for me. Spoiler alert- it is! Here are the three main takeaways I’d like to share from my time at IOA Indy:

  1. When I arrived late at night, I was surprised at the friendliness of fellow conference-goers that started right away. Even at 11 am, after a long day of travel, someone introduced themselves at the elevator and shared their excitement for elements of the conference. I was delighted to see the friendly face of Paul Sotoudeh whose warm welcome helped ease my worries that this was going to be a fun experience. From there, the friendliness of colleagues connecting was infectious. People were very eager to connect one person to another: "Have you met my friend from XYZ?" "You would love to talk to so-and-so from ABC". The accessibility, warmth, and down-to-earthness of meeting the giants in the field like Chuck Howard and Ellen Miller, to hearing Mary Rowe in sessions felt comfortable and kind. Having lunch with my IOA Mentor, Kathie Greenwood, in person was another big highlight. So be prepared, that even if you are not an extrovert and don't know many folks attending, you will be surrounded by friendly folks, eager to connect with old and new ombuddies alike.

  2. The conference structure involved keynotes and breakout sessions that included an effort to pump folks up for the challenging work we do and give hope in times that feel extra challenging globally. What makes the IOA conference unique in my opinion is the diversity of ideas, thoughts, professions, and education of attendees. I loved learning about different organizations that have ombuds (yay to the US Air Force Academy) and was inspired by many sessions that helped me think in new ways of how culture affects not only our participants’ experiences but my practice as an Ombuds (shout out to Neal Powless). I felt challenged and invigorated by this experience and that the conference's mission to inspire was done.

  3. Indiana’s motto is the “Crossroads of America”, and to me, this appropriately fits as being my first experience at my Crossroads as an Ombuds. The global attendees were a huge highlight and were so impressive to me. I delighted in the shared knowledge exchanged and efforts to understand the challenges faced by Ombuds around the world. I enjoyed Qinhui Jiang’s session but loved, even more, how folks lined up to share their connection to Kenya with him!

My experience at the 19th Annual IOA conference in Indiana was full of excitement, knowledge, and friendships - I hope to see you at the next one!

New Title IX Regulations Note that Organizational Ombuds May be Classified as Confidential Employees

IOA was handed a big win today!  Revisions to Title IX were released Friday, 19 April and IOA is thrilled to see the US Department of Education's inclusion of Organizational Ombuds as employees who may be designated as confidential employees for Title IX purposes.  

Since 2012, IOA has actively commented on proposed regulations and other guidance that addresses both Title IX and Clery Act. In 2022, we upped our game. In May 2022, we participated in an Executive Order (EO) 12866 Meeting on Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Sex in Education Programs or Activities to begin planning seeds.  In the Fall of 2022, we filed comments on the formal Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposal to changes in Title IX. Post filing, we spent several months lobbying US Members of Congress involved in education and safety committees. This resulted in a bipartisan letter that was sent to the Department of Education, supporting our position that Organizational Ombuds may be designated as confidential employees.  

Some Sections from the Commentary:  

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Good Day IOA: Practice Survey

Watch as Ellen Miller, IOA Executive Director, Mary Rowe, Hector Escalante, and Jennifer Schneider discuss the importance of the Practice Survey and why all practicing ombuds should take it. 

10 years of PetrOmbudsman – The Journey Continues

By, Dr. Eng. Ion Anghel

Director, PetrOmbudsman Department

On March 25th, my team and I officially celebrated the 10th anniversary since the establishment of our Ombuds department in OMV Petrom. The occasion was marked with a special celebration event in the headquarters of the organization, together with people who have been there with us during all this time. I can say that we embarked on a time machine journey, on the path of memories, but also of ambitious dreams, to new heights that we set out to conquer, now that we have reached the milestone of 10 years as PetrOmbudsman.

We had with us two of OMV Petrom’s Executive Board Members, Christina Verchere and Cristi Hubati, whom I would like to thank for the nice words they addressed to us on the occasion of our event.

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Opportunities to be Published

By Ellen Miller, IOA Executive Director

The Ombuds Community has a variety of channels within IOA and outside of IOA to publish content about the profession and field:  

1.  Within IOA: 

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IOA Announces 2024 Trailblazer Award and President Award Recipients

The International Ombuds Association (IOA) is proud to announce the recipients of the 2024 Trailblazer Award and President’s Awards.

The IOA Board of Directors established the Trailblazer Award in 2022 for individuals who have devoted significant contributions to the organizational ombuds field over an extended period of time. Award recipients may have served as an organizational ombuds, but is not required to have served as an organizational ombuds to receive this Award.

The 2024 recipient is: 

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Reminder - JIOA Call for Papers

By Shannon Burton,

Dear Colleagues,

This past year, the Journal of the International Ombuds Association (JIOA) placed two calls for papers in special issues. The editorial board wanted to send out a reminder about these special issues along with their end dates.

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Free Speech on Campus: What Colleges and Universities Can Do

By Kenneth Cloke,

As I write, it is now the year of the 60th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at U.C. Berkeley, in which I was an active participant (I am at the far right in the photo.)  It is also a time when free speech issues are again triggering campus conflicts, largely because of intense polarization over fighting in Gaza, and the mutually antagonistic activities of student supporters of Israel or Palestine.

Starting in the 1980’s, I began working as a mediator, conflict resolver, and dialogue facilitator, helping thousands of people and hundreds of organizations with vastly differing opinions, many mired in hatred and enmity, discover that they could somehow, unexpectedly, talk to each other, engage in open, honest, constructive dialogue, improve their understanding, and solve common problems.

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ABA Passes Early Dispute Resolution in Support of Ombuds

By Liz Hill

The American Bar Association (ABA) has taken significant steps to enhance the ombuds profession by passing Resolution 500 at its recent Mid-Year Meeting. This resolution encourages the informed and voluntary use of Early Dispute Resolution (EDR), emphasizing its efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Resolution 500 urges lawyers and stakeholders to employ party-directed, non-adjudicative methods such as direct negotiation, mediation, and ombuds services for conflict resolution.

The American Bar Association (ABA) House of Delegates unanimously approved the resolution spearheaded and drafted by ABA Section of Dispute Resolution (ABA DR) EDR Committee’s current and former Co-Chairs Ellie Vilendrer, Felicia Harris Hoss, and Mary Cullen as well as our very own ombuds colleague Meg Willoughby, Co-Chair of the ABA DR Ombuds Committee. 

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50 Possible Questions to Open Israeli-Palestinian Dialogues

By Kenneth Cloke,

Many political conflicts are taking place on campuses and in communities today over the war in Gaza between Israeli and Palestinian supporters.  Here are a few possible opening questions mediators and dialogue facilitators can use to encourage colleges and universities, groups, communities, and people on both sides or in-between to engage in facilitated dialogue and mediated problem solving.  They are suggestive, are likely to work best in small groups, and are only the beginning of a longer term process of discovering how to talk and learn from each other.  For additional questions and techniques, see my chapter on “the art of asking questions” in The Magic in Mediation.  There are thousands of potentially useful questions - please add a few of your own. 

Questions about the Process

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Good Day IOA: CO-OP® Certification updates

Learn about recent collaborations of the IOA and CO-OP® Boards of Directors, an exciting new Ombuds Program Certification proposal, and upcoming changes to the existing individual CO-OP® certification.

Shared Services Canada Special Report on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging

By Alexandre St-Jean (il, he), Ombuds

Office of the Ombuds | Bureau de l’ombuds | Shared Services Canada | Services partagés Canada

In April 2023, SSC Office of the Ombuds presented at the International Ombuds Association Annual Conference in Seattle. Their session entitled: “Being a Change Agent for Diversity and Inclusion Using Data and Change Management Methodology” looked at the experience of equity-seeking employees at SSC.

While the research report was not yet published during the IOA Conference, it is now available! In June 2023, SSC’s Ombuds published their report: “Uncovering the human experiences behind the numbers: Deep dive into diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at Shared Services Canada”.

They received 1,060 responses to their anonymous questionnaire and heard stories from over 100 employees during their discussion series.

The report highlights positive experiences and inclusive practices. It also shines a light on instances of exclusion, discrimination, and harassment. It provides a well-rounded perspective that goes beyond counting answers and shares the personal stories of individuals who:

• Don’t fit the majority narrative
• Face barriers in a system that wasn’t built for them
• May unfairly be viewed as the problem

The office’s hope is that the report’s findings will serve as a foundation for meaningful dialogue and strategic planning. And ultimately that supports SSC in creating a more inclusive and welcoming work environment.

Trauma-informed Ombudsry During Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation

By Nadia Ferrara, PhD, Co-Chair of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Accessibility, and Belonging Committee
 
Loneliness, feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression are on the rise in our communities (OSG 2023). Globally, we are faced with many challenges due to post-pandemic adaptation and recovery, inflation and the rising costs of living, environmental disasters, trauma related to racial violence, and ongoing wars. Many are referring to these experiences as an epidemic. How can we as ombuds help to address this current reality even as we’re navigating this reality personally? How does this affect our work? How do we support more trauma-informed workplaces?
 
As ombuds, we are not therapists or counselors, but we are holders of space where individuals come to share their lived realities. If we are applying a human-centric approach, we are acknowledging the visitor, we provide support, and we empower them to develop options that are meaningful to them. We as ombuds are committed to creating authentic, empathetic, compassionate, and psychologically safe spaces. Such spaces are all the more critical during a heightened period of loneliness and isolation. Everyone can benefit from a space to connect with our shared humanity. As ombuds, we offer the gift of listening, which is priceless. We cannot underestimate the power of listening.
 
We need to learn how best to be trauma-informed and trauma-responsive; how to identify trauma responses and know when to refer our visitors to clinical helping professionals, if warranted. We need to engage in our own self-reflection and self-evaluation, as well as hold space for each other to listen and learn from one another. Being trauma-informed and trauma-responsive benefits our visitors as well as ourselves as ombuds. As an Indigenous traditional knowledge keeper once told me: “Remember that as an ombuds, you are really a helper, one who listens and guides others.” Let’s continue to help others and ourselves by giving hope, as that is the best gift to give during such challenging times.
 
References:

Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community. Office of the Surgeon General (OSG). Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services, 2023.

Recommended Podcast:

Become an IOA Instructor

IOA’s Professional Development Committee (PDC) has recently revamped our processes for how people apply to instruct IOA courses and webinars. There are three opportunities we are highlighting, and a separate application form for each. Here are the details:
  1. You can apply to teach IOA Foundations of the Organizational Ombuds, which is taught multiple times a year both virtually and in-person. In order to be eligible to teach Foundations, you need to have taken Foundations and to have served as a practicing Ombuds for at least three years. You also need to be currently practicing as an Ombuds to IOA standards and be an IOA member. Foundations instructors are offered $500 for their instruction or they can have access to credits to take another IOA course. To apply to be a Foundations instructor, please visit: Foundations Instructor Form
  2. You can apply to present a Webinar. Webinars are presented virtually from 75 minutes to 3 hours and are recorded and posted to IOA’s Resources page. Instructors can present solo or as a group, and topics can vary. Webinar presenters are volunteering their time and do not receive payment for their presentations, but they are able to engage the entire IOA membership. Webinars are held on the third Thursday of the month at 9 AM Pacific, 12 PM Eastern. When applying, presenters should be prepared to provide the title, abstract, and learning objectives of their proposed webinar. To apply to be a Webinar presenter, please visit: Webinar Proposal Form
  3. You can apply to teach a Core Course in a topic that matters to you and that you have expertise in. Core Courses are virtual courses from 3 to 12 hours (over one day or many). They will be offered live and recorded and posted to IOA’s Resources page. Instructors can present solo or as a group, and each team of Core Course instructors is paid $400 for their instruction. Core Courses do not have to be offered in English or during a time zone that works for North America, so international instructors are encouraged to apply. You can apply to teach a Core Course that has been offered before or propose a completely new course. The application asks for the title, description, outline, and proposed audience of your proposed course. To apply to teach a Core Course, please visit: Core Course Proposal
 
Once you apply for any of these three opportunities, someone from PDC get back to you within 4 to 6 weeks. Applying does not guarantee that your application or your course proposal will be selected. PDC will evaluate each proposal based on current offerings and educational needs identified. Also, please note that you do not have to be a practicing Ombuds to apply to present a webinar or teach a Core Course. Read our FAQs for more information. Please reach out to PDC Co-Chairs Tessa Byer at [email protected] or Ernestine Duncan at [email protected] with any questions. We look forward to scheduling your courses!