September 10, 2013

Did a Former Ombuds Confess Ethical Breaches on Reddit?

Two days ago, an anonymous poster on reddit (a social news and entertainment website), said that his/her assurances of confidentiality were a sham. Posted to the subreddit on privacy with the title "University ombudsman scam - privacy warning," privacynat said:

So a professor sexually harasses you. You go to the ombudsman or ombudsperson in confidence. They are "strictly confidential" and "100% confidential."
But every ombudsman of every university reports to the General Counsel (main lawyer) at the university.
An ombudsman's real task is to protect the financial assets of the university in a lawsuit by nipping the problem in the bud.
The minute you have your "confidential meeting," the ombudsman secretly takes the case to the General Counsel. Then the university lawyers and ombudsman meet with the department chair to discuss the issue.
The department chair goes to the professor, who often meets with the university lawyers.
Your privacy and confidentiality go down the drain.

Responding to comments, privacynat also said:
As a dean of faculty, I worked closely with the General Counsel's office at my university. I also served as an ombudsman at another university. Both universities are US universities. Yes school attorneys are prohibited from discussing university related matters. But they do undertake investigations and do ask questions about potential lawsuits. An ombudsman is a very good idea to go to. What I am saying is that you have zero privacy and zero confidentiality - the part about privacy is a scam.

One later commenter responded:
I'm an Ombudsman, and this is overgeneral and not true. This account is a throwaway because I don't want my real life connected with my usual account.
1) Not every ombudsman reports to the general counsel. As a matter of fact, the International Ombudsman Association recommends that the Ombudsperson reports to the highest authority possible (usually the Chancellor or President at a university, or the board of a corporation) to avoid conflicts of interest. Even when this practice is not followed, university ombuds report to a wide variety of individuals. I've known some who report to Executive Vice Chancellors, the head of Student Affairs, etc.
2) While not all offices hold to the standards of the International Ombudsman Association, the majority do, and one of its four tenants is confidentiality. I jealously guard people's trust and have never in many years of practice violated this. Neither have those I've worked with over the years - I know one Ombudsman who told the President of her university that she would resign if forced to report sexual harassment cases when legal counsel was pressuring her to do so. The President realized the value of the office and she was allowed to continue doing her work without reporting.
The main exception to confidentiality observed by most offices is similar to that of therapists; if there is a realistic threat of imminent physical harm, most Ombuds will take steps to prevent it from happening. For example, if you tell me you're about to go shoot your dormmate, I will break confidentiality. That being said, I tell everyone before we start talking about that exception, and if I did have to report I would tell the visitor first.
This becomes a bit more complicated at universities/ corporations that do not follow IOA standards. Currently there is no enforcement mechanism to force offices to comply. And just like there are unethical accountants, teachers, or plumbers, there may be Ombuds who don't live up the standards. While I can't promise that all Ombuds will guard confidentiality, all that I interact with do. We take it very seriously.
3) Another tenant my office and IOA hold is informality, which means I have no control over what happens, and therefore would not meet with the chair and lawyers to decide what would happen in any particular case.
Lastly, the reason my university has an Ombuds office is because they realize the value of people coming to me and receiving information about what all of their options are, including formal reporting mechanisms, informal conversation strategies, mediation services, and sometimes doing nothing at all. If our office were not confidential, we would be much less unique and much less helpful, and I'm not even sure we'd be around for that long because our most important asset is our reputation. 

Several other, less informed participants also commented. (redditt/privacy.)

For some, this may seem like a non-issue.  But I think there are at least two reasons for concern.  First, reddit is an influential site.  It's owned by Condé Nast's parent company and it is the 34th most popular website in the U.S. Second is the admission of ethical misconduct by the anonymous author -- apparently a former Ombuds. I'm interested in readers' thoughts. Please comment. Thanks.

Related posts: Ombuds Not Exempt From Influence of Internet; Statement on Respectful Online Communication; Online Bullying an Emerging Issue for Ombuds; Facebook Group Parodies Ombuds; Trendspotting: Higher Ed Ombuds Are Embracing Social Media; Ombuds at American University in Cairo Struggles to Mediate Student Protest.


  1. Are you sure it wasn't Jimmy Kimmel?

    -The Angry Ombuds

  2. I tend not to pay much attention to anonymous reports. If this is true, however, it seems to me this may be an isolated situation and that most Ombuds offices have enough integrity to inform visitors if they -as Ombuds- need to report instances of sexual harassment before the visitor brings it up. In my case, I do not have to divulge anything to anyone.