How Inclusivity and Accountability Advance IOA

By Elisa V. Enriquez, LCSW,CO-OP ®, Senior Associate Ombudsman, Los Alamos National Laboratory
Chair, IOA Membership Committee

The International Ombudsman Association (IOA) was established in 2005 with the merger of the University and College Ombuds Association (UCOA) and The Ombudsman Association (TOA) following a period of transformation that led to establishing standards of practice for organizational ombuds. These standards were established on the pillars of neutrality, independence, confidentiality and informality. IOA’s mission is to “support and advance the global organizational ombudsman profession and ensure that practitioners work to the highest professional standards.”

In the 14 years since the inception of IOA, it has been acknowledged that some members must abide by institutional policies within their organizations which can limit their ability to fully adhere to the Standards of Practice, or SOPs. This has led to misunderstandings and those members often feeling excluded. There is tension over what it means to be an association of those in support of the organizational ombuds profession and those who should or should not be a full member of IOA. If members are not able to practice to the Standards, but are able to support the mission and conduct themselves professionally, they are considered full members in good standing by IOA.

Other discord may also occur due to underlying misperceptions and preconceptions, such as that a ‘credible’ ombuds must have a specific type of degree or that a new ombuds is not able to contribute as much as a long-time member. As conflict resolution professionals, we know that unmitigated conflict can lead to poor outcomes for any organization. IOA currently lacks options for resolving conflicts or addressing ethical concerns. For example, if members engage in unprofessional behavior or violate the SOPs, there is no process for resolution or to hold them accountable. While the CO-OP® offers an ethics complaint option for individuals to file a concern against an ombuds with CO-OP®, the complaint process does not apply to IOA members who are not credentialed by CO-OP® (Source: CO-OP® Ethics Complaint Procedure).   

IOA needs to clarify what it means to be an inclusive association--one that welcomes all members who express support of the Standards of Practice. The association also needs to identify what it can do to ensure members--whether or not they are practicing organizational ombuds--have options to resolve internal conflicts and to hold each other accountable. Fostering dialogue around these topics is necessary if IOA is to advance the organizational ombuds profession. How will IOA:

  • …continue to be inclusive and expand partnerships?
  • …establish expectations around professional conduct and hold members accountable?

 IOA and Inclusivity

IOA has evolved according to the needs of some members and changing workplaces in recent years. This requires a balance between steadfastly supporting the organizational ombuds professional tenets while remaining inclusive while building partnerships. What does it mean to be an inclusive IOA? For many it means genuinely inviting all who support the tenets to the table and understanding the ways in which ombuds practice ‘where they are.’ Just as there are many types of lawyers, counselors and alternative dispute resolution professionals, there are different types of ombuds--organizational, classical, advocate, etc. IOA members come from various educational backgrounds and organizations, which at times diverge from the Standards. While some IOA members cannot fully adhere to the SOPs, members all share the common goal to promote, protect and provide for the organizational ombuds profession.

Membership voted to change and remove membership categories just over a decade after IOA was created, which seemed to demonstrate a shift to become a more welcoming, inclusive association. Much like the debate that led to the creation of IOA, differences of opinion around categories led to a membership vote decision to allow all members to obtain full membership, regardless of the type of ombuds practice (or whether one is a practicing ombuds). An influential factor in the decision to remove the categories was that a large number of university ombuds were impacted by Title IX-related mandates in 2015, and many could no longer strictly adhere to the Standards of Practice. The fact that the IOA is comprised largely of members from the United States, and that a large percentage of members are in higher education, likely drove the discussion and impacted the vote. 

As a result of the removal of categories in 2016, the Membership Committee and Board of Directors no longer had to oversee whether or not people were practicing to the Standards. The reality was that the process of identifying whether or not someone was practicing to the standards was based on subjective self-identification by members. Substantive inquiries were not a part of a process that was based on the ‘honor system’ and individuals who were previously non-voting, second-class members felt more included by the decision to do away with categories. Another inclusivity issue is that many international members, as well as some working for U.S.-based companies, are unable to fully adhere to the Standards of Practice. Members may be confined to restrictions within their organizations while still supporting most of the Standards. Additionally, some countries don’t recognize or differentiate between organizational and other types of ombuds, such as classical ombuds.

There continue to be candid conversations about whether or not IOA should go back to having membership categories. If IOA were to re-establish such categories, would it alienate some members and thwart growth? Would it be more useful to categorize those who are practicing as ombuds versus those who are not? These questions require further study by the Ethics and Professional Standards Task Force, whose mission is, in part, to "better understand the nature of the professional activities of those organizational ombudsmen who are unable to adhere to the Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics as compared to the nature of the professional activities of those who do adhere to (them).”

Rather than using membership categories to separate those who ‘are’ from those who ‘are not’ practicing to the Standards, IOA has most recently focused on promoting the profession worldwide. This is exciting because it is a more inclusive practice for an association with such a diverse membership! It is also a reason to continue to encourage the credentialing process to delineate between those who practice to the SOPs and those who do not. The Certified Organizational Ombudsman Practitioner (CO-OP®) is a process for certification which includes a certifying board with the authority to recognize, endorse and enforce adherence to the Standards.

The CO-OP® Board recently recognized that there are many ombuds practitioners who strive to adhere to the Standards and would like a path toward a limited or different credential. The new credentialing levels set forth by CO-OP® may encourage more inclusivity, such as providing a credential for those who pass the exam and a different one for those who are candidates for CO-OP®. While this credential provides a process for strictly holding organizational ombuds accountable to the Standards, it is not mandatory to have a credential to practice as an organizational ombuds. In fact, most members do not have it and the IOA Board is limited in scope regarding what they can and cannot do to ensure that members abide by the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice. Promoting greater awareness around the current credentialing process and expanding the types of credentials may further advance the profession.

IOA and Accountability

As ombuds professionals, we know that conflict is a normal part of change and growth.  We also know that the way conflict is managed and how we communicate around difficult topics matters greatly because mishandled or ignored low-level disagreements lead to a lack of trust and poor morale. This is true in our workplaces as well as in volunteer-run non-profits, even those involving well-intentioned  conflict resolution professionals. Examples of IOA-relevant conflicts include someone speaking up about a perceived incivility only to be told that what they heard was ‘not what was meant’ or a new ombuds being belittled when presenting ideas because they don’t understand the way business is conducted within IOA.

Without a fair process for mitigating conflicts and holding individuals accountable, there cannot be trust. Without trust, organizations suffer. Organizations sometimes use a code of conduct in tandem with a code of ethics to hold people accountable. They also use procedures to address concerns around fair process, interpersonal conflicts, and other systemic problems. IOA is not immune to the same types of conflict ombuds observe in their respective workplaces. While there may be unwritten expectations that IOA members should engage in respectful, civil, behavior while holding each other accountable, there are currently no options for handling internal disagreements or ethical misconduct within the association. 

A culture of accountability is fostered both within informal and formal constructs. Two informal options IOA may consider could be to create a volunteer peer ombuds network or to employ a part-time internal facing contractor ombuds to provide services for IOA members.  These could prove useful for handling everyday, low-level, conflicts within IOA. A formal option to address higher level concerns could be implemented through an ethics complaint procedure and ethics board. A Board of Ethics could serve to formally investigate and address more serious, credible allegations of unethical conduct, regardless of whether the individual presenting a concern is an IOA member or not.

The current IOA Code of Ethics is a one-page document containing a short preamble and a brief description of the SOPs. Better definitions of what ethical behavior looks like is needed, and a more substantive Code of Ethics could provide clarity around behavioral expectations and consequences for misconduct. CO-OP® provides a formal complaint avenue and its Ethics Statement asserts the following: “The CO-OP® Board and the Certified Organizational Ombudsman Practitioner® shall be truthful and act with integrity, shall foster respect for all members of the organization he or she serves and shall promote procedural fairness in the content and administration of those organizations' practices, processes, and policies.”

While most issues are often best handled informally, egregious unethical conduct that is not handled properly lead to eroded trust and morale. If someone called IOA staff right now and alleged that a current member made lewd remarks while in an ombuds position, what would IOA staff or someone on the Board say or do? The individual making the allegation may receive guidance from an experienced, well-vetted IOA leader to explore options in the same fashion we engage with visitors. Without a formal procedure to address ethical concerns the IOA remains vulnerable, unprotected, and less credible. As such, establishing a formal IOA Ethics Board or perhaps aligning with the Professional Practices Committee can serve to protect, promote, and provide for the profession.


The IOA has accomplished a lot recently--from choosing a ‘hybrid’ management model, to contracting with a new management company (SBI), to the current search for an Executive Director. This deserves a huge applause! The 2019 IOA Conference, themed “Connection and Calm in Turbulent Times,” aptly describes the growing pains that IOA is currently going through. It also illustrates what we, as conflict navigators, help employees work through on a daily basis.

There will no doubt be more turbulence as IOA grows, which is why building trust is a top priority. This includes fostering a transparent culture around how and why decisions are made, such as meeting minutes from the board, committees and task forces being easily accessible to all members. There continues to be positive, forward-looking changes happening within IOA, and the inevitable tension will lead to opportunities for growth that have yet to be explored.

It is urgently important for IOA to encourage inclusivity and impart accountability to advance the profession. The credentialing process both protects and promotes professional credibility by holding practitioners accountable to the Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics. Options to mitigate and resolve issues such as member disagreements, unprofessional behavior, or ethical misconduct are needed, including informal conflict resolution and a formal ethics complaint procedure. The following are suggested areas for immediate focus:

  • clarifying current IOA priorities to align with long-term strategic plan
  • re-defining roles, responsibilities, and expectations (of members and leaders)
  • encouraging organizational ombuds practitioner credentialing
  • expanding on the Code of Ethics or adding a Code of Conduct
  • creating and implementing informal processes for handling internal conflicts
  • establishing an IOA ethics board

IOA members can start by practicing what we preach--being inclusive and holding each other accountable. Let us work to promote, protect, and provide for IOA by connecting, listening, learning, and acting on these shared ideals. Thanks to strong leadership and authentic dialogue around these difficult topics, IOA will continue to strengthen the organizational ombuds profession.

"In one of our concert grand pianos, 243 taut strings exert a pull of 40,000 pounds on an iron frame. It is proof that out of great tension may come great harmony."

                                                                                                                                               - Theodore E. Steinway


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Comments on "How Inclusivity and Accountability Advance IOA"

Comments 0-15 of 4

Elisa Enriquez - Tuesday, June 04, 2019

There is much difficult decision making that lies ahead. Although it won't be easy, with a clearly communicated organized strategy, IOA will grow.

Elisa Enriquez - Tuesday, June 04, 2019

There is much difficult decision making that lies ahead. Although it won't be easy, with a clearly communicated organized strategy, IOA will grow.

Marcia Martinez-Helfman - Monday, June 03, 2019

Elisa - Thank you very much for taking the time to thoughtfully consider and share your insights regarding inclusivity of the IOA, accountability and ethics in our profession, and so much more. We are very fortunate to have volunteer leaders like you shining a light on the paths the IOA might follow to take our association to greater heights. In the coming year our Board will embark on a long term strategic planning process, in collaboration with our inaugural Executive Director who we anticipate will join us by the end of the summer. The outcome of that process will be informed by robust dialogue with our membership and thoughtful idea sharing like that reflected your piece. Some ideas can be implemented quickly. Others take more time because information and input must be gathered; ideas have to be formulated and refined into processes and plans; and then those recommendations must be deliberated, approved, and implemented. Much of this work is done by volunteers, though with an ED and a new management team on board, that lift will be a bit lighter. In any event I see growth, innovation, and much progress ahead for the IOA, and can’t help but be optimistic about our future.

Mark H. Patterson - Friday, May 31, 2019

How about IOA commission a study to see what it would take to establish an ethics board (charter, cost, composition, etc.). We might also consider a study to assess what it would take to establish an "Organizational Ombuds Program Certification" process.

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