British Petroleum America apparently has not shut down its Ombuds office as threatened last summer. BP's Ombudsman Stanley Sporkin sat down recently for an interview with Corporate Secretary Magazine and talked about his work as an Ombuds and General Counsel for the CIA. Two of the five questions he answered were about Ombuds.
Why should companies adopt an ombudsman program?
The ombudsman’s office was developed at BP America to obtain information from employees who had been unwilling to bring matters to the attention of their supervisors. Instead, they took their concerns to outside sources that often saw no duty to bring the matter to the attention of the company and went directly to various public authorities. This denied the firm an opportunity to fix the matter promptly. I would recommend that a company adopt the ombudsman concept in conjunction with its normal hotline. Our program at BP America was developed not only to receive information from people, but also to give us the chance to become proactive on safety issues.
Today many companies are not as concerned with safety issues as much as they are with looking at financial risks, but the corporation’s safety remains a big item, especially in the oil and gas, automotive, pharmaceutical and nuclear industries. It is essential to keep in mind that an ombudsman whose role is to discover serious safety issues and correct them is working in the best interests of the corporation. The ombudsman’s office is a place where employees can voice their concerns, safe in the knowledge that they will not be retaliated against for doing so.
What qualities should a company look for in an ombudsman?
You have to find someone employees can trust. I was selected because of my public interest experience, to assure employees that I would be fair in my dealings with them and the issues they raised. It is essential to look for a person who has a lot of knowledge and experience, is highly respected and is capable of dealing with most issues as they arise. Remember, this job is not one where you can obtain a syllabus, and there are no books on the subject. You really have to find your own way, and the key to this is experience, along with having the trust of both management and the workforce.