There are two common typs of ombudspersons. the classical ombudsperson and the organizational ombudsperson. In North America and Europe the latter type of ombudsperson today is the more numerous one.
There has been a slow but steady change in culture of institutions, characterized in its broadest sense by the concept of empowerment, involving employees in culture-changing processes and programs. These initiatives were centered around productivity or quality gains, e.g. TQM (Total Quality Management). This whole movement has created the expectation of a much more open communication process.
There are many places of employment where this is true, but numerous organizations have a way to go. In organizations (or departments) where true communication is lagging, the frustration of people has increased as they are asked for opinions on improving work processes and products, but are totally ignored, or, worse, intimidated when they make suggestions or complain about people issues. In fact, many of the people who contact the ombudsman are there because of a perceicved discrepancy between the published value system and the actual behavior going on within the organization (partly quotes from Mary Rowe and Thomas Furtado, Int. Ombudsman Assoc.).
2. Objectives and Scope of Ombudsman function
The Ombudsman’s function is to provide impartial, confidential and informal assistance to all employees and managers, such as:
- option for people (incl. groups, departments) who seek to effectively bring their concerns forward
- mediation to facilitate conflict resolution
- coach or mentor (incl. recommendations on individual style to be adopted when facing conflict)
- anonymous tracking of problem areas (e.g. misadministration, lack of good leadership)
- recommendation for improving policies, procedures and/or structures
The purpose of an Ombudsman is not to take the place of other functions in the organization, as comparable options are of course also offered by Leaders, Human Resources, Working Council, and various line functions specialized to improve processes and to resolve problems. However, there is a significant ‘hidden market’ of people needing help who will only use a function seen as independent, neutral, immune and near-absolutely confidential.
All employees can contact the Ombudsman, through email, normal mailing (even anonymously), telephone, or face-to-face. The Ombudsman will treat every information seriously and confidentially.
4. Personal experience as Ombudsman
From 2008 until 2012 I was active as the Ombudsman for the Research and Development (R&D) area of a large and global pharmaceutical company. As a designated neutral and independent party, a reputable person outside line and staff structure, with no direct management function and taking no management decisions, I took care of any type of conflict at any location of this R&D organization.
In numerous cases it could since be demonstrated that an ombuds function can be of great help for any employee or manager in the organization, because as a completely neutral, informal and confidential function the ombudsman can use ways which are closed for others. As Ombudsman I was actively involved in all types of assistance mentioned above and I was always happy to help.
5. Further Reading (Background information about the term “Ombudsman”):
- Ombudsman Association International Code of Ethics
- Ombudsmann in Wikipedia
- European Ombudsman
- Harvard University Ombudsman
- Kansas University Ombudsman