March 03, 2010

Ombuds’ Claim Against Airline Highlights Pitfalls of High Profile Ombuds Positions

On Sunday, the Ottawa Citizen reported that the Canadian Transportation Agency had dismissed a complaint filed by an Ombuds who had asserted that Canada’s largest airline had unfairly denied him travel after a disagreement with a flight crew.
In an interview with the newspaper, the Ombuds said he plans to file an appeal of the CTA decision and explained that his objective was not for financial compensation, but merely an apology from the airline. Despite the fact that the issue was entirely unrelated to the Ombuds' employer, the news item was picked up by several industry insiders who drew parallels between the Ombuds' frustration with the airline and agency and current issues witin that industry. Some also criticized the Ombuds' handling of the underlying situation. (CTA Decision No. 57-C-A-2010; Ottawa Citizen; The Domains Blog; Twitter Meme.)

This situation highlights two significant issues for high profile Organizational Ombuds:

1. Ombuds may be viewed representatives of their organizations -– Although Ombuds are not hired to represent their organization, they can become one because of their status. Ombuds report to and routinely interact with top executives and are often well paid. For those within the organization, this special status makes the Ombuds well known and noteworthy. This is especially so for Ombuds in prominent organizations. In some situations, an Ombuds' personal affairs may become newsworthy and prompt criticism, despite the fact the personal matter is unrelated to the Ombuds' professional work. This may be unwarranted, but is a fact of life for Ombuds.

2. Ombuds can be held to a higher standard for their personal conduct –- With years of training and practical experience, Ombuds are expected to be the consummate conflict specialists. Yet serving as an independent and neutral expert is impossible when an Ombuds is a party to the conflict. Ombuds often have just as much trouble as anyone else when they become directly involved in a dispute. Nonetheless, people assume that Ombuds should be better at avoiding and resolving arguments even if unrelated to their professional actions.

Organizational Ombuds certainly dislike being a proxy for their entity or being held to a higher standard in personal conflicts. Most Ombuds strive to protect their organizational independence and to keep personal matters and interest separate from their work. Nonetheless, the unique role of the Ombuds may make them more public than they wish.

Update 7/19/10: The Ombuds apparently agrees.  He unsuccessfully sought to have his name redacted from the public record.  (Domain Name Wire.)

Update 7/24/10: The Ombuds draw attention for trying to tamp down the issue. (Globe and Mail.)


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  3. There was certainly no intent to publicly humiliate anyone. I was careful in reporting on this story to omit any of the subjective details of the underlying conflict. My commentary focused only on the lessons the situation holds for ombuds. Humiliation, therefore, is in eye of the beholder.
    The Ombuds Blog has a daily readership of less than 1,000, while the Ottawa Citizen has a circulation of more than 141,540. The story was also covered by many online domain industry blogs. My added publicity by comparison was insignificant.
    Finally, my readers will notice that I cover all news about ombuds, not just the positive news. Indeed, most of the news items I post are far less significant. If I had ignored this particular subject, I would be guilty of favoritism.

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