The latest issue of Conflict Resolution Quarterly includes an article by Samantha Levine-Finley and John S. Carter on the history of Organizational Ombuds profession and the challenges that lie ahead. "Then and now: Interviews with expert U.S. organizational ombudsmen," incorporates comments from two dozen leading Ombuds:
- Linda Wilcox, Harvard Medical School
- Marsha Wagner, Columbia University
- Martha Maselko, Bell Labs
- Margo Wesley, UC Berkeley
- Tom Sebok, University of Colorado-Boulder
- Mary Simon, ATT/Bell Labs
- Don Perigo, University of Michigan
- Robert Shelton, University of Kansas
- Thomas Zgambo, Polaroid / Coca-Cola
- Howard Gadlin, University of Massachusetts
- Tim Griffin, Northern Illinois University
- Mary Rowe, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Geoffrey Wallace, UC Santa Barbara
- Carole Trocchio, 7-11
- Jan Schonauer, UC Irvine
- Helen Hasenfeld, California Institute of Technology
- Ann Bensinger, United Technologies
- Lynn Connley, Southern Illinois University Carbondale
- Brian Bloch, International Society for Krishna Consciousness
- Wilbur Hicks, Shell Oil
- Chandra Heilman, Smithsonian Institution
- Maile Sagen, University of Iowa
- Kerry Egdorf, Marquette University
- Merle Waxman, Yale University
From these interviews, the authors identify several challenges facing the Ombuds profession.
The Basics: Nomenclature -- Some of the problem is that the word “is foreign-sounding to American ears, many people have never heard it, can’t pronounce it, and certainly don’t know what it means,” Sebok said. “Second, there are many people who have heard the word but know it from some other context where it means something different.
Assessing and Communicating Organizational Ombudsman Value and Effectiveness -- “In tough economic times, ombuds offices are at risk for elimination,” Heilman said. “It seems that in prosperous times, organizational leadership considers ombuds as a nice benefit for employees; however, in less than an optimal economy, ombuds may be thought of as expendable.” Tough times are “precisely when people and organizations need ombuds’ services more than ever,” Hicks said.
Building and Maintaining Credibility -- Ombudsmen can earn credibility by taking steps to “broaden one’s contacts and establish trust and credibility with other organizational constituencies,” Gadlin said. “Ombuds must do more than simply present options to visitors.”
Establishment of Organizational Ombudsman Certification -- “Certification confers a basic knowledge and understanding of the office, as well as what people ought to be doing,” Sagen said. “Developing and maintaining standards makes you a profession.” On the other hand, ... Egdorf ’s university requires her to breach confidentiality beyond risk of imminent harm. Though she has challenged the university’s leadership on this topic, the policy has not changed, which means she cannot become certified. Egdorf is concerned that many practicing ombudsmen would also be effectively barred from becoming certified.
Maintaining Neutrality -- Zgambo said he had to work hard to bite his tongue, “especially when you saw mistreatment and injustice, and you felt you had the wherewithal to change that or decide for the employee. But in the end, you realize it has nothing to do with you. You provide options, let them choose, and then work with them on the option."
Need for a Shield Law -- “The lack of a national shield law for ombuds practitioners is one of our primary challenges,” said Connley. Gadlin added that “we need a powerful, true shield law to protect the privilege of confidentiality for ombuds. As a result of this legislation, ombuds could keep records that would later provide helpful evidence if needed to settle disputes.”
Addressing Organizational “Agita” -- The merger of UCOA and TOA into IOA “left lingering tensions” in the ombuds field, Sagen said, adding that it is “unfortunate. We struggled and studied for years up to the merger decision.”
Supporting Professional Mentoring -- “I am in favor of close mentoring relationships and local groups meeting together,” Rowe said. “I am hugely in favor of constant training and discussions of standards of practice.”
These excepts only scratch the surface of this thorough, balanced and timely article. Levine-Finley has served as an Organizational Ombudsman at the National Institutes of Health since 2008. Carter has served as an Ombudsperson at the Citadel since 1997. (Conflict Resolution Quarterly.)