April 21, 2020

Urban Institute White Paper Endorses Ombuds to Address STEM Harassment

A new report by the Urban Institute recommends Ombuds programs as an effective resource: "Promising Practices for Addressing Harassment in the STEM Workplace." The white paper comes out of a conference organized by the American Geophysical Union, in partnership with the Urban Institute and the National Women’s Law Center, that featured a range of organizational experts including IOA Board Director Jessica Kuchta-Miller (Ombuds at Washington University in St. Louis) and Executive Director Chuck Howard

The report recommends Ombuds as a strategy for "creating reliable, safe, and effective avenues for workers to come forward" and cites the program at Argonne National Lab as an example. 
Offering employees choices among multiple avenues to raise concerns can create a trusted complaint process.11 Many participants expressed the value of an organization providing a designated, confidential, and well-trained office or person to listen to concerns and provide resources to employees. Several panelists and participants cited ombuds programs as a method of supporting targets of harassment and encouraging employees to come forward. An ombuds program provides a confidential and neutral third party who can liaise between the target of harassment, the perpetrator, and the organization’s leadership. According to members of the International Ombudsman Association, ombuds are distinct from human resources professionals in that they can more easily honor the target’s agency.12 Ombuds listen and can help targets identify their options, analyze the pros and cons of their options, and strategize about how they may want to proceed. Given the confidential, informal, and impartial nature of the role, targets can share what they feel comfortable sharing, knowing that it does not commit them to anything, and they retain control over what happens next.13 And from the perspective of their employers, ombuds can surface issues that otherwise would not have been raised while maintaining the confidentiality of their communications with the targets.14 Trained ombuds can also encourage the organization to ensure that investigations are trauma-informed. Targets of sexual harassment may be traumatized by their experience, and having to relive it through an investigation can be harmful. Being aware of this and employing appropriate techniques for dealing with trauma can make reporting systems more accessible.
Megan Clifford of Argonne National Laboratory shared her organization’s successful experience in implementing an organizational ombuds office as an independent, informal, impartial, and confidential resource for members of the Argonne community to raise concerns. Laboratory director Paul Kearns and the Argonne leadership team established the ombuds office after receiving results from a 2017 climate survey that indicated that one quarter of employees were afraid to speak up about concerns, such as harassment. Argonne’s organizational ombuds explained that it was important to have the buyin of leadership, legal counsel, and human resources to implement the ombuds office, especially given confidentiality concerns. The Argonne leadership team garnered the support of all three groups by helping them understand the office’s benefits. Employees and leadership have embraced the office favorably. In addition, Argonne’s leadership team agreed to establish core values to address the climate survey feedback and foster a safe, welcoming, diverse, and inclusive environment.
The full report is available for download. (Urban Institute.)

Related posts: Washington University in St. Louis Names First Staff OmbudsNational Academies and Universities are Incorporating Ombuds in Effort to Combat Gender DiscriminationArgonne National Laboratory Selects First Ombuds.

See other Ombuds Blog Posts on sexual harassment and #metoo.

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