Ombuds Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is an organizational ombuds?

An organizational ombuds is an individual who serves as a designated neutral within a specific organization and provides conflict resolution and problem-solving services to members of the organization (internal ombuds) and/or for clients or customers of the organization (external ombuds). There are organizational ombuds in all sectors (corporate, academic, governmental, non-governmental, non-profit, etc.). Some may serve both internal and external constituencies.

An organizational ombuds provides confidential, informal, independent and impartial assistance to individuals through dispute resolution and problem-solving methods such as conflict coaching, mediation, facilitation, and shuttle diplomacy. The organizational ombuds responds to concerns and disputes brought forward by visitors to the office and may convey trends, systemic problems, and organizational issues to high-level leaders and executives in a confidential manner. Ombuds do not advocate for individuals, groups or entities, but rather for the principles of fairness and equity. The organizational ombuds does not play a role in formal processes, investigate problems brought to the office’s attention, or represent any side in a dispute.

2. Why the word “ombudsman”?

The word “ombudsman” is Scandinavian and means “representative” or “proxy.”  The term is used by the International Ombudsman Association (IOA) to communicate to the widest possible community. Variations of the term exist (i.e., ombuds, ombud, ombudsperson) and are commonly used, including by the IOA.

3. Are there other kinds of ombuds?

Yes.

Classical Ombuds
These ombuds receive and investigate complaints and concerns regarding governmental policies and processes.  The authority and mandate of classical ombuds are typically provided by statutory language. These ombuds may be elected by constituents or appointed by a legislature or organization to monitor citizens’ treatment under the law.  Classical ombuds generally have authority to conduct investigations and make recommendations for appropriate redress or policy change.

Advocate Ombuds
An advocate ombuds may be located in either the public or private sector. They evaluate claims objectively but are authorized or required to advocate on behalf of individuals or groups found to be aggrieved. Advocate ombuds are often found in organizations such as long-term care facilities or agencies, and organizations that work with juvenile offenders.

Hybrid Ombuds
Hybrid ombuds are usually established by policy or terms of reference by both private and public sector organizations. They primarily use informal methods to resolve complaints but also have the power to investigate and the authority to publish annual and special reports.

Executive Ombuds
An executive ombuds may be located in either the public or private sector and receives complaints concerning actions and failures to act of the organization, its officials, employees, and contractors. An executive ombuds may either work to hold the organization or one of its programs accountable or work with the organization’s officials to improve the performance of a program.

Legislative Ombuds
A legislative ombuds is a part of the legislative branch of a government entity and addresses issues raised by the general public or internally, usually concerning the actions or policies of government entities, individuals, or contractors with respect to holding agencies accountable to the public.

Media Ombuds
The media, or news, ombuds’ primary objective is to promote transparency within their organization. They can receive and investigate complaints about news reporting on behalf of members of the public and then recommend the most suitable course of action to resolve issues raised. The news ombuds is an independent officer acting in the best interests of news consumers. They explain the roles and obligations of journalism to the public and act as a mediator between the expectations of the public and the responsibilities of journalists. (For more information, see http://newsombudsmen.org/.)

4. How does an ombuds differ from an employee relations or human resources professional?  

Employee Relations and Human Resource (ER/HR) professionals assist managers and employees of the organization in establishing, following and applying Human Resource-related policies and procedures. They may conduct formal investigations, make or modify policies, and accept formal notice of a claim on behalf of the organization. As a result, the ER/HR professional cannot always extend complete confidentiality to individuals who come forward with issues. The ER/HR professional's role is not completely neutral because they are part of the management structure and they must directly represent and protect the interests of the organization.

An ombuds' function is to provide informal assistance in surfacing and resolving issues. While they can recommend that an organization consider establishing or revising policy, the ombuds plays no formal role in enforcing or deciding to implement policy. The ombuds does not conduct formal investigations. However, they do assist in identifying or creating options for resolution, including referrals to formal channels with investigatory powers. Because they are not part of the management structure of the organization, an ombuds does not accept notice for the organization and can extend near absolute confidentiality (except in the instance of imminent threat of serious harm, as jointly defined by the organization and the ombuds, at the discretion of the ombuds). The ombuds acts as a neutral party and does not advocate for the individual, groups or the organization. The only advocacy role is for fairness and equity.

The roles of the ombuds and the ER/HR professional are not competing roles, they are complementary. When the two functions work together in an effective partnership, they can yield tremendous benefit to an organization by maintaining an environment that encourages the use of multiple options to surface and resolve issues and to improve systemic policies and procedures.

5. How does an ombuds differ from a lawyer?

The organizational ombuds role is quite different from that of a lawyer, who is associated with more formal processes and the legal system.  An organizational ombuds maintains neutrality and impartiality when working with visitors, while a lawyer must advocate for their client and generally use adversarial approaches to resolve issues. Though some organizational ombuds may have legal training and experience with issues of the law, ombuds do not provide legal advice.

6. Is an ombuds the same as a mediator?

No.  An ombuds works to manage conflict within an organization, whereas mediation is a specific process used for conflict resolution. Many ombuds are trained as mediators and often use mediation skills and techniques as one of many approaches to problem-solving and conflict management. Some ombuds write written agreements after parties have reached an agreement. However, in accordance with IOA Code of Ethics, the organizational ombuds engages informally with visitors and will not retain written records for confidentiality reasons. If a written agreement is reached, others in the organization, such as the HR department, may retain that document in a file.

7. How can an organizational ombuds contribute to an organization?

An organizational ombuds can:

  1. "Humanize" an organization by providing constituents with safe and informal opportunities to be heard; assistance in identifying options for managing or resolving concerns; facilitation of communication between or among conflicting parties; conflict resolution skills training; and upward feedback to management about trends in conflicts, hot-button issues or other matters of import to organizational leaders (see Question 9 for more).

  2. Help organizations reduce costs related to conflict by resolving disputes informally and helping to avoid the waste of resources, time and energy of parties in formal grievance processes and litigation.

  3. Help keep top management abreast of new and changing trends within the organization. (See Question 9 for more).

  4. Help executives and managers avoid spending excessive time attempting to resolve conflicts.

  5. Refer individuals toward appropriate formal processes and resources within the organization.

8. Why should the leader(s) of an organization listen to an ombuds?  

The ombuds is interested in being helpful to leaders, in the same way that the ombuds is helpful to others within the organization. An ombuds's orientation is toward "fair process" so they are likely to be sensitive to the interests and concerns of a wide range of people. An ombuds is likely to have a different perspective than most others to whom organizational leaders listen. They are likely to be familiar with multiple points of view regarding any given situation and be able to appropriately articulate the concerns of those whose voices often go unheard. The ombuds can also:

  • Brief the leader on issues or ‘hotspots’ of which they ought to be aware, and the possible implications of those issues.

  • Share what has been done so far to address the issues, taking care to maintain confidentiality.

  • Identify serious potential problems that may be unforeseen or downplayed by management or employees.

  • Create an opportunity for the executive to talk about things they might not be able to talk to others about.

9.  Is the organizational ombuds field growing?   

The modern organizational ombuds role began to take shape in the 1960s and 1970s.  In the decades that have followed, organizational ombuds offices have been established within hundreds of organizations worldwide and in every sector of society. There are various reasons for that growth, including federal legislation in the United States promoting alternative dispute resolution; legal settlements in the private sector that required the creation of ombuds offices; and a growing recognition of the need for alternative channels for communication within organizations.

10. Would an organizational ombuds work with a union to help resolve issues?

The extent to which an ombuds would work with a union depends in large part upon the nature of the issue. Most ombuds refrain from significant involvement in issues that are specifically covered by a union contract and for which a specific, formal resolution process is mandated by the contract. However, an ombuds can often be a very useful informal resource for union leadership or union employees for issues that are not governed by the contract.

11.  What is a charter or Terms of Reference?  

The charter or Terms of Reference of an organizational ombuds office is the document that generally defines the role of the ombuds and scope of their duties.

12.  How does someone become an organizational ombuds?  

There is currently no established path to becoming an organizational ombuds. A specific career background or formal academic degree is less important than one’s demonstration of skills, including non-judgmental listening; the ability to communicate successfully with a diverse range of people; courage to speak up; discretion; creativity in developing options; and problem-solving and analytical ability. That is why, within the ranks of IOA, you will find ombuds from all disciplines, ranging from the sciences to academia, management, human resources, law, engineering, accounting, consulting, and everything in between.

Many new organizational ombuds assume their roles after holding other jobs within their organizations. Often, they are tapped to become the ombuds because they have established a widely known reputation for integrity, confidentiality, and knowledge of organizational processes across functions. Their specialized experience within their organizations can make them even more effective as ombuds because they have a deeper understanding and awareness of the specific issues that affect people and organizations in these fields.

Ombuds also may be hired from outside the organization after having served as an ombuds in other organizations.

Occasionally, when an organization does not or cannot appoint an ombuds from within, they may turn to ombuds who work independently and contract their services. These ombuds have typically established their professional credibility through prior experience in organizations, success with clients, and formal conflict resolution training.

Formal training can be invaluable in preparing an individual for an ombuds role. The IOA offers a series of professional training courses that include skills training as well as practical instruction in establishing and maintaining an organizational ombuds office. Formal training in mediation and/or other conflict resolution processes, such as facilitation and conflict coaching, is also very valuable.  For more information on IOA training opportunities, please visit the Events & Training section of the website.

13. Do individuals need a license to be an ombuds?  

There is no licensure requirement at this time. The organizational ombuds field is still relatively new in the U.S. so people are selected for the position from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds (see Question 12).  In 2009, the International Ombudsman Association launched a certification credential called the Certified Organizational Ombudsman Practitioner.  However, certification is currently not required to serve as an .

Please view the Resources item in the main menu at the top of this page for further information about ombuds.