January 04, 2016

HBR Article Poses Questions for Ombuds

An article in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review asks "Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely?" The authors--two management professors--explore how organizations encourage feedback from employees. Among other things, they offer some criticism of Ombuds:

Relying on anonymous feedback.
The promise of anonymity is a common way to encourage frank input. Suggestion boxes, whistle-blowing hotlines, ombudspeople, 360-degree assessments, and satisfaction surveys all serve this purpose. Here’s the logic: If no one knows who said what, no repercussions will follow, so people can be forthright about any topic.
This line of reasoning has three flaws.
First, allowing employees to remain unidentified actually underscores the risks of speaking up—and reinforces people’s fears. The subtext is “It’s not safe to share your views openly in this organization. So we’ve created other channels to get the information we need.” 
Second, anonymity can set off a witch hunt. That was a theme at one Fortune 500 company we studied. When employees provided negative feedback through hotlines, suggestion boxes, and such, some bosses demanded to know “Who said this?!” People in other organizations had similar experiences. Many told us that they go to libraries and coffee shops and use public computers to complete online employee surveys—because they worry they’ll be tracked through their IP addresses otherwise. One man said he wouldn’t even report a problem to an ombudsperson. When asked why, he countered, “Who pays his salary?”
Third and perhaps most important, it can be difficult to address issues while protecting the identity of the people who raised them. Reporting in a survey that a manager acts abusively, incompetently, or in racist or sexist ways won’t do any good unless HR or an ombudsperson can assess the extent of the problem, explore the causes, and develop recommendations. That means interviews need to be conducted, stories corroborated, and additional data collected—all of which involve talking to the person who has accused the manager of wrongdoing. And if a complaint refers to a specific incident, it’s often quite clear to the manager which person filed it.

Even if there are responses to these criticisms, Ombuds should understand them.

Related posts: Harvard Study: Employees Fear Speaking Up, Even to Ombuds; Harvard Business Review on Ombuds; HBR: Principles of Investigative Negotiation.

1 comment:

  1. I agree ombuds ought to understand these criticisms. But I'd favor doing more than that. For example, the rhetorical question, "Who do you think pays the ombuds' salary?" is obviously intended to lead one to the bogus conclusion that, because they are paid by management, ombuds cannot maintain confidentiality. I have heard this question many times and I'll bet most ombuds have. Wouldn't it be helpful if all ombuds had similar and clear responses to this one? I've seen some office website Q&A's that answer it directly. And, IOA has a Q&A (#5) on it's Q&A page (under Resources) that comes close to addressing it but I'd like to see an Q&A item that acknowledges that while organizational ombuds ARE, indeed, paid by their organizations, unlike every other employee, management (and legal counsel) accepts that they will follow a Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice that require them to maintain confidentiality except in cases of "imminent risk of serious harm."