What Is an Organizational Ombuds?

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What’s in a Name: Ombuds, Ombudsperson, and Ombudsman?

The name “ombudsman” (om - budz - man) comes from Sweden and literally means “representative.”  An ombudsman assists individuals and groups in the resolution of conflicts or concerns. There are a number of different titles or names for this position: “ombuds:, “ombudsman”, ''ombudsperson” among others. Ombuds work in all types of organizations, including government agencies, colleges and universities, corporations, hospitals and other healthcare organizations, and not-for-profit organizations, foundations, and associations.

There are also different types of ombuds with different roles, functional responsibilities, and standards of practice including organizational ombuds, classical ombuds, and advocate ombuds. The standards of practice and functional responsibilities can be very different for different types of ombuds.  Organizational Ombuds have their own standards of practice and code of ethics that guides their work.

 

The Organizational Ombuds—Role and Function

The primary duties of an organizational ombuds are (1) to work with individuals and groups in an organization to explore and assist them in determining options to help resolve conflicts, problematic issues or concerns, and (2) to bring systemic concerns to the attention of the organization for resolution.

An organizational ombuds operates in a manner to preserve the confidentiality of those seeking services, maintains a neutral/impartial position with respect to the concerns raised, works at an informal level of the organizational system, and is independent of formal organizational structures. Successfully fulfilling that primary function in a manner consistent with the IOA Standards of Practice3 requires a number of activities on the part of the ombuds while precluding others.

 

Activities and functions most frequently undertaken by an ombuds include, but are not limited to:

  • Listens and understands issues while remaining neutral with respect to the facts. The ombuds doesn’t listen to judge or to decide who is right or wrong. The ombuds listens to understand the issue from the perspective of the individual. This is a critical step in developing options for resolution.
  • Assists in reframing issues and developing and helping individuals evaluate options. This helps individuals identify the interests of various parties to the issues and helps focus efforts on potential options to meet those interests.
  • Guides or coaches individuals to deal directly with other parties, including the use of formal resolution resources of the organization. An ombuds often seeks to help individuals improve their skill and their confidence in giving voice to their concerns directly.
  • Refers individuals to appropriate resolution resources. An ombuds may refer individuals to one or more formal organizational resources that can potentially resolve the issue.
  • Assists in surfacing issues to formal resolution channels. When an individual is unable or unwilling to surface a concern directly, the ombuds can assist by helping give voice to the concern and /or creating an awareness of the issue among appropriate decision-makers in the organization.
  • Facilitates informal resolution processes. An ombuds may help to resolve issues between parties through various types of informal mediation.
  • Identifies new issues and opportunities for systemic change for the organization. The unique positioning of the ombuds serves to provide unfiltered information that can produce insight to issues and resolutions. The ombuds is a source of detection and early warning of new issues and a source of suggestions of systemic change to improve existing processes.

What an Ombuds Does Not Do

Because of the informal, neutral, confidential and independent positioning of an ombuds in an organization, they typically do not undertake the following roles or activities:
  • Participate in formal investigations or play any role in a formal issue resolution process
  • Produce any findings or make binding decisions 
  • Institute corrective measures
  • Serve in any other organizational role that would compromise the neutrality of the ombuds role
  • Receive notice or act as an office of notice for the organization 
  • Create policies
  • Create or maintain records 
  • Form any type of formal relationship (i.e., attorney-client

Skills, Training, and Professional Requirements of Ombuds

The most important skills of an effective ombuds include active listening, communicating successfully with a diverse range of people, remaining nonjudgmental, having the courage to speak up and address problems at higher levels within an organization, problem-solving and analytical ability, and conflict resolution skills. Specific career background or academic degree is less important than acquiring and demonstrating the skill set described above.

Within the ranks of IOA, you will find outstanding ombuds from numerous professional and academic backgrounds, including scientists, human resource professionals, mediators, professors, line managers, engineers, lawyers, accountants, and consultants.

Some organizational ombuds are hired internally, assuming this role after fulfilling previous roles in an organization where they have exhibited the above-mentioned skills and established a widely known reputation for integrity, confidentiality, and knowledge of organizational processes across functions. When hiring from the outside, an organization will often seek someone who has a background in conflict resolution and/or has established standing as an ombuds through prior organizational experience. Ombuds coming from outside the organization, with no history or relationships, may be able to provide fresh perspectives and the perception of neutrality may be enhanced. Organizations might also turn to an independent ombuds who contracts their services.

Formal training is invaluable in preparing for an ombudsman role. IOA offers a series of professional training courses that include skills training as well as practical instruction in establishing and maintaining an ombudsman office. Formal training in mediation and/or other conflict resolution processes is also very valuable. In order to stay on the leading edge of critical ombudsman issues, such as confidentiality and privilege, and to maintain and enhance ombudsman skills, active membership in relevant professional associations, such as the International Ombuds Association, is vital. These associations also provide invaluable information and professional support.


 

Types of Ombuds

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.

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.


Learn More:


To learn even more about the organizational ombuds role, read "The Organizational Ombudsman," by Howard Gadlin and Mary Rowe in Oxford Handbooks Online.

Why create an ombuds office?


1 Wesley, Margo, The Compleat Ombuds A Spectrum of Resolution Services, CPER Journal No. 166 (June 2004).
2 Rowe, Mary, Options, Functions and Skills-What an Organizational Ombudsperson Might Want to Know (1995).
3 Id.