Frequently Asked Questions
1. What is an Organizational Ombudsman?
An Organizational Ombudsman 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 ombudsman) and/or for clients or customers of the organization (external ombudsman). There are Organizational Ombudsmen in all sectors (corporate, academic, governmental, non-governmental, and non-profit). Some may serve both internal and external constituencies.
An Organizational Ombudsman 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 Ombudsman responds to concerns and disputes brought forward by visitors to the office and may report trends, systemic problems, and organizational issues to high-level leaders and executives in a confidential manner. He or she does not advocate for individuals, groups or entities, but rather for the principles of fairness and equity. The Organizational Ombudsman 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 gender-neutral in origin and is used by the International Ombudsman Association (IOA) to communicate to the widest possible community. Variations of the term exist (i.e. ombuds, ombudsperson) and are common among those practicing in the ombudsman field.
3. Are there other kinds of Ombudsmen?
These Ombudsmen receive and investigate complaints and concerns regarding governmental policies and processes. The authority and mandate of Classical Ombudsmen are typically provided by statutory language. These Ombudsmen may be elected by constituents or appointed by a legislature or organization to monitor citizens’ treatment under the law. Classical Ombudsmen generally have authority to conduct investigations and make recommendations for appropriate redress or policy change.
An Advocate Ombudsman may be located in either the public or private sector. He or she evaluates claims objectively but is authorized or required to advocate on behalf of individuals or groups found to be aggrieved. Advocate Ombudsmen are often found in organizations such as long-term care facilities or agencies, and organizations that work with juvenile offenders.
Hybrid Ombudsmen 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.
An Executive Ombudsman 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 Ombudsman 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.
A Legislative Ombudsman 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.
The Media, or News, Ombudsman is familiar to many people. The News Ombudsman’s primary objective is to promote transparency within his or her news organization. This Ombudsman 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 in the complaints. The News Ombudsman is an independent officer acting in the best interests of news consumers. He or she explains the roles and obligations of journalism to the public and acts as a mediator between the expectations of the public and the responsibilities of journalists. (For more information, see http://newsombudsmen.org/.)
4. What is “IOA”?
IOA is the International Ombudsman Association. IOA’s mission is to “support and advance the global Organizational Ombudsman profession and ensure that practitioners work to the highest professional standards.” For more information, please go to www.ombudsassociation.org. There are currently more than 500 members in the IOA.
IOA has established a set of ethical principles for Organizational Ombudsman practice. These ethical principles are:
IOA has also established Standards of Practice, which are based on the ethical principles. For more information on the IOA Code of Ethics or Standards of Practice, please go to: http://www.ombudsassociation.org/standards.
5. How does an Ombudsman differ from an Employee Relations/Human Resource 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 Ombudsman's function is to provide informal assistance in surfacing and resolving issues. While they can recommend that an organization consider establishing or revising policy, the Ombudsman plays no formal role in enforcing or deciding to implement policy. The Ombudsman 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 Ombudsman 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 Ombudsman, at the discretion of the Ombudsman). The Ombudsman 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 Ombudsman 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.
6. How does an Organizational Ombudsman differ from a lawyer?
The Organizational Ombudsman’s role is quite different from that of a lawyer, who is associated with more formal processes and the legal system. An Organizational Ombudsman maintains neutrality and impartiality when working with visitors, while a lawyer must advocate for his or her client and generally uses adversarial approaches to resolve issues. Though some Organizational Ombudsmen may have legal training and experience with issues of the law, Ombudsmen do not provide legal advice.
7. Is an Ombudsman the same as a mediator?
No. An Ombudsman works to manage conflict within an organization, whereas Mediation is a specific process used for conflict resolution. Many Ombudsmen are trained as mediators and often use mediation skills and techniques as one of many approaches to problem solving and conflict management. Some Ombudsmen write written agreements after parties have reached an agreement. However, in accordance with IOA Code of Ethics, the Organizational Ombudsman 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, will retain that document in a file.
8. How can an Organizational Ombudsman contribute to an organization?
An Organizational Ombudsman 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 organizational community. (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.
For more information on the benefits of an Ombudsman office, please see: http://www.ombudsassociation.org/members/documents/BenefitsofanOmbudsmanOffice.pdf
9. Why should the leader(s) of an organization listen to an Ombudsman?
The Ombudsman is interested in being helpful to the leader, in the same way that the Ombudsman is helpful to others within the organization. An Ombudsman's orientation is toward "fair process" so he or she is likely to be sensitive to the interests and concerns of a wide range of people. An Ombudsman is likely to have a different perspective than most others to whom organizational leaders listen. He or she is 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 Ombudsman can also:
- Brief the leader on issues or ‘hotspots’ of which he or she 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.
10. Is the Organizational Ombudsman field growing?
The modern Organizational Ombudsman role began to take shape in the 1960s and 1970s. In the decades that have followed, Organizational Ombudsman 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 ombudsman offices; and a growing recognition of the need for alternative channels for communication within organizations.
11. Would an Organizational Ombudsman work with a union to help resolve issues?
The extent to which an Ombudsman would work with a union depends in large part upon the nature of the issue. Most Ombudsmen 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 Ombudsman can often be a very useful informal resource for union leadership or union employees for issues that are not governed by the contract.
12. What is a charter or Terms of Reference?
The charter or Terms of Reference of an Organizational Ombudsman office is the document that generally defines the role of the Ombudsman and scope of his or her duties.
13. How does someone become an Organizational Ombudsman?
There is currently no established path to becoming an Organizational Ombudsman. 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 Ombudsmen from all disciplines, ranging from the sciences to academia, management, human resources, law, engineering, accounting, consulting, and everything in between.
Many new Organizational Ombudsmen assume their roles after holding other jobs within their organizations. Often, they are tapped to become the Ombudsman 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 Ombudsmen because they have a deeper understanding and awareness of the specific issues that affect people and organizations in these fields.
Ombudsmen also may be hired from outside the organization after having served as an Ombudsman in other organizations.
Occasionally, when an organization does not or cannot appoint an Ombudsman from within, they may turn to Ombudsmen who work independently and contract their services. These Ombudsmen 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 Ombudsman 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 Ombudsman 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 see: www.ombudsassociation.org/training/.
14. Do individuals need a license to be an Ombudsman?
There is no licensure requirement at this time. The Organizational Ombudsman 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 (see http://www.ombudsassociation.org/boc/ for more information). However, certification is currently not required to serve as an Ombudsman.
15. How do I become a member of IOA?
For more information on IOA and how to become a member visit: http://www.ombudsassociation.org/membership/
16. How can I get involved in IOA?
There are a number of ways in which you can get involved in the International Ombudsman Association. The organization sponsors a number of excellent training sessions and meetings each year in addition to an annual conference. For more information on these professional development events, please visit: http://www.ombudsassociation.org/training/
The work of IOA is largely completed by a number of busy and effective committees made up of volunteers. For a complete listing of the IOA committees and their functions, please visit: http://www.ombudsassociation.org/about/committees.asp
Mary Rowe, MIT. Selected Ombudsman publications: http://web.mit.edu/ombud/publications/index.html
United States General Accounting Office, 2001. “The Role of Ombudsmen in Dispute Resolution.” http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d01466.pdf
Gadlin, H., and Levine, S., 2007. "Stranger in a Strange World: The Ombudsman in the Federal Government." ACResolution, Association for Conflict Resolution.