Top 10 FAQs about an Ombudsman

If you’ve been in business for years and have never heard the term ‘Ombudsman,’ don’t worry, you’re not alone. This weird-sounding word (it’s Swedish for “representative” coined in the 13th century) represents a vital service to organizations in just about every sector of society.

A company finding itself in the midst of a conflict management crisis that is sapping resources, creating a deep rift in the workplace culture and heading toward a legal nightmare, finds out fast how valuable an Ombudsman’s services can be in resolving the conflict and restoring peace and productivity to the organization.

We have on our Resologics team a highly skilled Organizational Ombudsman whose value to clients goes way beyond crisis mode. The following FAQs will give you some insight on how this can be valuable to any organization..

1. What is an Organizational Ombudsman?

The International Ombudsman Association (IOA) defines an Organizational Ombudsman as someone who serves as a ‘designated neutral’ within an organization. He or she “facilitates the informal resolution of concerns,” and provides conflict resolution and problem-solving services.

Other terms, which we at Resologics typically use: “Ombuds” or “Ombudsperson,” and “Conflict Advisor.”

2. What does an Organizational Ombudsman provide for my organization?

The role of an Ombudsman is to act as a confidential and informal safety net which anticipates and helps resolve conflicts that are headed for negative outcomes. Not just to step into a crisis situation, but rather to work closely with teams and individuals to help address conflicts, problematic issues or concerns; and to explore and implement options. An Organizational Ombudsman not only helps their clients resolve conflicts but also to use naturally occurring conflicts to their advantage.

3. What doesn’t an Organizational Ombudsman do?

Because their role and ethical standards are to be informal, neutral and independent, they do not: advocate for individuals, groups or entities, or represent any side in a dispute; participate in formal investigations; make binding decisions or mandate policies; or serve in any other organizational role that would compromise their neutrality.

4. Is an Organizational Ombudsman the same as a mediator?

No. Mediation is a specific process used for conflict resolution that an Ombudsman may use in his/her work. Organizational Ombudsman services go beyond conflict resolution to the broader concerns, issues and dynamics that help an organization run efficiently, productively, and with an engaged and empowered team.

5. How does an Organizational Ombudsman differ from a lawyer?

A lawyer works with formal processes and the legal system, and is hired to advocate for his or her client. An Ombudsman does not provide legal advice, and maintains neutrality and impartiality when working with clients.

6. Why deploy an Organizational Ombudsman?

Here are some of the results you may experience from engaging an Ombudsman:

      Reduced litigation and bad press caused by unbridled conflict

      An early warning system for issues that management may not be aware of

      Increased open communication, employee empowerment and creativity

      Improved management practices that come from a fresh perspective and unbiased       insights           

      Very early intervention in team member conflicts resulting in fewer             entrenched disputes

      Minimized discrimination and harassment issues

7. Why should a leader of an organization listen to an Ombudsman?

The purpose of the Organizational Ombudsman is to be an impartial, fair and trusted sounding board. How important – and refreshing – could this be for a leader regularly faced with conflicting viewpoints, personal agendas and lobbying that clouds decision-making!  An Ombudsman understands multiple points of view and can articulate the concerns of all voices to help the leader get a clear and true picture of the situation. He or she can bring systemic concerns to the attention of the organization leadership for resolution, again, with the objective perspective of a neutral party.

8. Why engage an Organizational Ombudsman if I already have my HR staff?

By nature of their role as part of the management structure, Employee Relations and Human Resource (ER/HR) professionals can’t always ensure complete confidentiality or neutrality.

An Ombudsman’s role is to be confidential, informal and impartial; to hear all points-of-view. The roles of ER/HR and the Ombudsman are complementary. When these two functions work together effectively, the organization gets great benefit in an environment that encourages healthy conflict resolution, all voices to be heard, and improvement in systemic policies and procedures.

9. What should I look for in an Organizational Ombudsman?

Make sure he or she is a member of the International Ombudsman Association (IOA), and shows evidence of the guiding principles of confidentiality, neutrality, informality and independence. A qualified Ombudsman should display the ability to listen attentively, be discrete, and engender a sense of trust and comfort in team members organization-wide. An exceptional Organizational Ombudsman will offer special skills and services such as: proactive conflict awareness, conflict coaching and training, team development, facilitation, shuttle diplomacy and conflict analysis.

10. How does an organization know it needs an Organizational Ombudsman?

The obvious indicator is when a conflict hits crisis level. However, conflict is a natural consequence of the everyday working environment, and savvy businesses understand that conflict unmanaged can be expensive in financial, human, and opportunity costs. U.S. companies spend over 350 billion dollars every year dealing with conflict. (Learn more about the cost of conflict to your business here.) Bringing in an Organizational Ombudsman who specializes in team conflict can mitigate these costs and lead to a workplace culture of productive, cooperative engaged and motivated employees and leaders.