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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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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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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!

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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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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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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George Mason Ombuds Office Anniversary and Ombuds Day Celebration Reflection

By, Sarah Ahmed Atif,
Program Coordinator, George Mason University Ombuds Office

The current George Mason University Ombudsperson, Kimberly Jackson Davidson, was introduced in February 2022, and the Office Charter was signed in October of the same year by University President Gregory Washington. We identify this moment of a signed charter as the official act of launching the Office. This October, completing one year of operations, the Office celebrated its anniversary by hosting various programs for different audiences.

The office hosted an Ombuds Gathering for academic ombuds from the DMV area at the beautiful Potomac Science Center on October 20. This program was an effort to bring the academic ombuds in one room to have a dialogue on events pertaining to the field. Following were the program topics: 

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Catch up on and Contribute to the JIOA

By Shannon Lynn Burton, Ph.D.,
University Ombudsperson, Michigan State University

Dear IOA Colleagues,

The Journal of the International Ombuds Association (JIOA) has been busy this year!  Please visit our website if you have not done so recently.  There are new articles and book reviews posted. 

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Ombuds Day 2023

By Belinda M. Robinson, PhD
Associate Organizational Ombudsman - Federal Bureau of Investigation

For nearly six years, in conjunction with the American Bar Association’s Ombuds Day Committee, the Ombuds community is celebrated, recognized, and congratulated on the second Thursday of October, also known as Ombuds Day. This year, Ombuds Day is celebrated on Thursday, October 12. The theme for 2023 is Ombuds: Diverse in Role. United in Service.

Prior years’ themes have paid homage to the professionals who lead conflict resolution efforts and mediation services for organizations, large and small, and regardless of their internally or externally facing ombuds roles:

  •  2022Ombuds: Resilience, Respect, Resolve
  •  2021Ombuds: Exploring Options to Resolve Conflict Together
  •  2020 and 2019Ombuds: Unusual Name. Important Service

Ombuds practitioners are often described as navigators who provide a beacon of light; giving employees, and often the public, hope that their problems can be resolved fairly and equitably.

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ABA Dispute Resolution Section - Call for Proposals

The ABA Dispute Resolution Section is now accepting program proposals for our 2024 Spring Conference that will be held April 10–13, 2024, in San Diego, CA. This year’s conference theme is Mastering the Future: Revolutionizing Dispute Resolution in a Dynamic World.

We welcome program proposals from anyone who can enlighten and connect with our anticipated attendees, who include dispute resolution leaders, mediators, arbitrators, ombuds, judges, attorney advocates, court administrators, neutral providers, ADR consumers, and legal educators. The proposal deadline is September 13 at 5 p.m. ET, so now is your chance to bring your program idea to life!

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Updated - Journal for the International Ombuds Association seeks Associate Editor

The Journal for the International Ombuds Association (JIOA) has an opening for an Associate Editor! Associate Editors work directly with authors throughout the revision process. JIOA believes in a highly constructive revision process. Associate Editors are directly responsible for providing editorial support to authors to achieve that goal. Specific responsibilities of Associate Editors include:

  • Serve at the first point of contact for authors during the revision process
  • Provide feedback to authors as necessary as they revise drafts of their manuscript
  • Determine when a revised manuscript is ready for final approval from the Editor
  • Make minor editorial decisions and request the opinion of the Editor for larger ones
  • Solicit manuscripts from potential authors
  • Assist with JIOA special projects
  • Market the Journal via email and social media platforms
  • Attend Editorial Board meetings

The ideal Associate Editor will have excellent communication skills; tact and discretion; familiarity with academic research, writing, and conventions; digital fluency; the ability to multitask and meet deadlines; a highly cooperative spirit; and respect for academic integrity. Three years of experience within the Ombuds field is preferred.

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The Ombuds Journey: A Consideration of Multiple Contexts

By Shannon Lynn Burton, Ph.D.,
University Ombudsperson, Michigan State University

Over five years ago, I was asked to put together a presentation to discuss why I wanted to be Michigan State University’s next University Ombudsperson after having served as Assistant and Associate Ombudsperson. What follows is my ombuds journey adapted from that presentation. There, and here, while I do not present a chronological perspective, I do share the multiple contexts that I believe an ombuds must navigate: Theoretical; Historical; Social; Professional and the Personal.

Theoretical

For those that know me, they know I love discussing theory… but more than that, I like making it practical. Theory is often like a computer code running in the background. You don’t often see it running, but you know that it is. In terms of my own code, I pull from two traditions: dialogue, deliberation and public engagement, as well as andragogy. While understanding conflict is a key factor in being an ombuds, understanding student perspectives and growth are really at the heart of this office’s work. For me, these traditions inform both aspects of the office: “student” and “ombuds”. I focus on the democracy perspective in dialogue, deliberation and public engagement, as well as emancipatory learning from andragogy. These approaches have three concepts in common:

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The Creative Energy of a Federal Ombuds

As an Associate Ombuds for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Dr. Belinda Robinson utilizes poetry as a creative outlet. She gracefully presented two examples of how she uses this medium to share appreciation for the role she has within the Ombuds community. The following was shared at the Coalition of Federal Ombudsman (COFO) conference in 2021 in recognition of Ombuds Day 2021:

The Federal Ombuds
By Belinda M. Robinson, Ph.D.
October 15, 2021

Trying times throughout the years
Erase your doubts
And calm your fears
The Federal Ombuds are here
Confidential, neutral, and informal
That’s how we do it everyday
Independent in every way
But we still managed to have
Our own day
And today we celebrate
Ombuds’ Day
Diverse in people, agency mission and vision
Yet, united in the way we work
Providing service before self
And, we’ve even added articles and books
To the Ombuds’ body of knowledge shelf
No matter the weather, crisis, or pandemic
Bring us your challenging dilemmas
And we will stand up in it
To help you determine the best way to handle them
While we provide fair and equitable resolution
Of your concerns
The Federal Ombuds are who we are
Visit us in person or virtually
Let us help you
Cause it’s what we do
Happy Ombuds’ Day
To all of you!

 

The next poem was also shared in recognition of Ombuds Day 2022 (It was originally embedded in a slideshow and was reformatted to present in this post):


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Highlighting the Creative Energy in our Ombuds Community

Being able to engage in creative problem solving is key to our role as ombuds. This level of creativity is further fostered by engaging in creative endeavors outside of our role. Creative endeavors can also allow us to refresh our mind after days of high intensity conversations.

For those of you who attended the IOA conference in Seattle, I hope you were able to experience the various displays of creativity shared by our IOA members. There were the many visual displays exhibited within the Experience on Display program; we had the lovely performance of the George Gershwin tune Summertime by Sana and Chuck Doran; and the conference was opened by Ellen Miller sharing the video with Andisile Best reciting his poem that follows:

As we wake up here by the fireside,
Our hearts and minds open wide.
We shared our stories, joy and fears,
And shared some tears that washed our cares.
For some of us, the wounds were fresh,
But comfort shed felt like a curse.
We were reminded of our vital roles.
To serve with dignity, compassion and goals.
As ombuds we may feel forgotten,
But our solutions will last forever unbroken.
Our work may not make headlines,
But it has power to heal and change lives.
So let us celebrate the work we have done.
As we heal our wounds one by one.
For the fireside chat reminded us all,
That our impact will be felt for generations to come.
By, Andisile Best

 

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Survey Responses Requested: Building Relationships and Engaging across Organizations

Dear Ombuds Colleagues!

As many of you know, the International Ombuds Association (IOA) is publishing its first ombuds handbook The Organizational Ombuds: Foundations, Fundamentals, and its Future. Donna Buehler and Liz Hill are co-authoring a chapter discussing how organizational ombuds build relationships and engage with entities across organizations while maintaining their independence and impartiality. 

To accomplish this, Donna and Liz kindly request that you share your experience and complete their survey by Friday, May 12, 2023, at 12:00 a.m. 

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Contribute to Research on Ombuds Origins

Deanna Yuille Bandford and Bina Patel, seek participants for a project that explores Ombuds effectiveness at both the individual and programmatic level. Their research will be incorporated into a chapter for the International Ombuds Association’s first book, The Organizational Ombuds: Foundations, Fundamentals & Its Future

Participants are invited to share their personal perspectives via a survey or one-on-one interviews. The anonymous Ombuds Origins survey is here: 

https://qfreeaccountssjc1.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_8hJ12M5XGmKEmxg.

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ABA Section of Dispute Resolution's 25th Annual Spring Conference

Don't miss out on this year's ABA Section of Dispute Resolution's 25th Annual Spring Conference on May 10–13, 2023, at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. We are excited to bring ADR professionals together again in Las Vegas after three years of virtual conferences! As the world’s largest ADR conference, it provides attendees a chance to network with others in the field, attend quality educational programming to advance their careers, and have fun with peers at social events. Join us in celebrating this year’s ADR awardees and be inspired by the keynote speakers. Whether you are new to the field or have been practicing for decades, the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution Spring Conference has something for you!

Driving Speak-up Culture

By Doriana Vintila, Ombuds - OMV Petrom S.A.

We can all agree that speak up culture is an essential characteristic of a people-oriented inclusive organization. Forbes said it, and I think they said it well in a very insightful article on the benefits of creating a speak-up culture at work [1]. Undoubtedly, most companies have evolved from the initial purpose of speak-up, which was to protect them from wrongdoings, and moved towards making people feel respected, empowered and safe. A work environment where members of the staff, irrelevant of their position, feel safe bringing their ideas to work every day will grow and flourish. Speaking up is very much about learning and improving, becoming a better version of what was yesterday – both individually and collectively.

But having a speak-up culture is more than just having policies and hotlines in place. People often refrain from speaking their minds for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the availability of tools do so, or where those tools are placed (with HR, Compliance, the Ombuds etc). I’ve more than once heard people say that they won’t criticize a coworker because they don’t want to hurt their feelings or put their friendship at risk. However, isn’t holding back doing exactly that? That is where valuing a true speak-up culture comes into place: the belief that your suggestions, constructive criticism and openness will be perceived as an act of goodwill, both by colleagues and especially by management.

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Dependable Vs. Dependency

By Christina Tay

Director of Services - Restorative Resolution 

Over the past few years, I have been thinking thematically about the tension between being dependable as a organizational ombuds and the unintended consequence of dependency developing with a user of the service.  In a previous role, I had attended a potential client’s senior leadership team meeting with our organization's business development manager and we were attending to promote the value and benefit of providing ombuds services. One of the senior leaders asked “What do you do if one of the staff becomes dependent on you as a practitioner or the service you are here to promote”? As we had a very limited amount of allocated time I responded “One of our key roles as a practitioner is to empower individuals through the sharing of knowledge and tools to move towards being able to manage the situations they are experiencing.”  It has been a few years since that question was posited and it is a topic that I have continued to consider.

One of the senior leaders asked “What do you do if one of the staff becomes dependent on you as a practitioner or the service you are here to promote”?

In a past role, I was working in an organization that employed a few thousand employees.  One of the requirements of the role was to continue to promote the service to the widest possible audience across the organization.  I started to observe that once some users of the service connected with the ombuds they were inclined to return for multiple individual sessions and while the subject may have slightly changed between sessions it did raise thoughts about the possibility of dependency.  On one hand, I see the absolute value of providing as much support as an individual requires but this has to be balanced against ensuring that there is sufficient time and energy available to an expanded base of users.


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