The following commentary was submitted by Brett Harris and Jai Calloway. They are co-chairs for the International Ombudsman Association's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force, but are not writing in their official capacity. Calloway is an independent consultant and Ombuds at Iowa State University, and former Corporate Ombudsman for Halliburton. Harris is the Ombuds at the University of Oregon, and former Ombuds at the University of Mississippi the University of North Dakota.
As an introduction, we are Jai Calloway (former ombuds at Halliburton and current ombuds for MWI ADR Firm and diversity & inclusion consultant) and Brett Hathaway Harris (current university ombuds and program director at the University of Oregon). Almost a year ago, we joined the IOA’s newly formed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force and were elected as co-chairs shortly thereafter. We write from our own perspective, informed by our role as co-chairs of the IOA’s DEIB Task Force* but not on behalf of that group. These opinions and insights are our own.
For clarification, the DEIB Task Force did not seek to change IOA bylaws. Early in this calendar year as the IOA Board application/nomination process was underway, we were contacted by numerous IOA members who felt the approval process for IOA Board elections was unfair and had a disparate impact. We shared this feedback with the IOA Board, highlighting the following concerns:
- The lack of clarity and specification as to what constitutes applicable ombuds experience and IOA-compliant practice under the bylaws, specifically Article IV(B)-(F);
- Whether current eligibility requirements for service on the Board have been inequitably interpreted or applied; and
- Whether the current process has caused any demographically disparate impact among Board members.
Clearly, none of these concerns relate even remotely to lessening qualifications for Board service. An independent review conducted by external consultants provided less than definitive results for the issues raised, however, we do know that the outcome prompted proposed changes to bylaws along with other changes that were already in the works. Although we would welcome bylaws revisions through an inclusive, transparent, and well-planned process, and we acknowledge the hard work of the Board, we did not ask for the proposed bylaws revisions and have only advocated for fair processes within the IOA.
In recent months, we have been contacted by IOA members with concerns over the Task Force’s perceived aim to dilute the criteria for leadership roles. This is not the goal of the DEIB Task Force. From a diversity and equity perspective, it is frustrating that any ombuds would automatically equate fair interpretation/application of the rules and expanding access with diminished professionalism. It is crucial to correct this misconception. As an organization, we must find ways to increase access and participation and reduce barriers without the notion that it lessens our professionalism to do so. Perhaps we do this by evaluating those things that we have always believed denote professionalism. Having the necessary credentialing, training, education, experience, and qualifications do promote professionalism in the field, while just being in a profession for many years does not.
As lawyers by trade, neither of us recall a “years of service” requirement to become licensed attorneys or serve in professional organizations. In many ways, newly admitted attorneys with bar-exam-preparation fresh on their minds, or doctors just out of residency and trained on the newest techniques, have a distinct advantage on those more established in the field. “Years of service” is a notoriously arbitrary yardstick by which to judge credentials. For comparative purposes, the American Bar Association has Board spots specifically for women, for LGBTQ lawyers, for young lawyers, for lawyers from underrepresented minority groups, and for law students. As far as I know, the ABA is not concerned that this representation by less experienced attorneys in leadership will impact the professionalism of the field.
Perhaps the actual problem is that the ombuds field has not established any better way to gauge professional competency than “years of service.” There is no required training or coursework for this work. There is no doctorate in ombudsing, although if there were such a degree, perhaps it still wouldn’t be enough (a recent PhD candidate with a dissertation in the ombuds field was one of the applicants found to not be qualified for the recent IOA board elections).** There are basic training and education requirements that could be implemented for ombuds work – graduate-level coursework in skills ranging from data analysis to dispute resolution to DEI work, training with supervised hours in dispute resolution techniques and professional coaching, and a systematized approach to trend-tracking and upward feedback, to name a few - but these skills aren’t translated anywhere for IOA membership, credentialing, or leadership.
To be clear, the DEIB Task Force has no interest in lessening professional qualifications in the ombuds field. While we can’t speak for all on the Task Force, we support increased requirements for ombuds practice. We also support establishing a system of regulation, oversight, and accountability for our profession. It’s peculiar that an organization so keen on requiring “years of experience” for credentialing and leadership to preserve professionalism has not prioritized establishment of an oversight/disciplinary system or educational/training requirements – two areas that would surely promote professionalism and could be equitably applied to all practicing and new ombuds.
Howard Gadlin’s guest blog comment that the IOA “must decide whether it wants to be a professional organization or a club whose members share an interest in the organizational Ombuds role” is meritorious. However, we contend that the IOA will indeed be a club rather than a profession if we don’t implement requirements that are similarly rigorous to other professional fields and instead rely on “years of service” to allow insiders to make, interpret, and apply the rules, offer selective opportunities to lead and teach, and stay at the helm simply because they are the ones who landed ombuds roles and have kept them, year after year after year.
We end by sharing that these comments are not intended to convey any support or lack thereof for the proposed bylaws revisions; instead, we simply hope to dispel the rumor that there is an effort underway to eliminate professional qualifications in the ombuds field. These are important issues for the future of our profession. Please join in the conversation.
* The “B” in DEIB was added by the group and stands for “belonging.” Additionally, the Task Force has proposed to become a permanent committee.
** This candidate for IOA board leadership has authorized us to share this comment which may be identifying.
Related posts: University of Oregon Names New Ombuds; New Ombuds Joins Team at Iowa State; Guest Post: Bringing Clarity is Key to Advancing the Field; IOA Asks Members to Approve Omnibus Revision of Bylaws; (Guest Post) Howard Gadlin Comments on the Proposed Bylaws; (Guest Post) Nick Diehl Comments on the Proposed Bylaws.