August 23, 2021

(Guest Post) Mary Rowe's Further Comments on the Proposed IOA Bylaws

The following commentary was submitted by Mary Rowe, IOA Distinguished Emeritus and former Ombuds at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was a founder of the Corporate Ombudsman Association, the first professional group for Organizational Ombuds, Adjunct Professor of Negotiation and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and thought-leader in the Ombuds profession.

Hi to all the members of IOA.

Thank you very much to many members for all the IOA Bylaws discussions.

In discussions of Board membership standards we have noted our hope to seek objective standards for Board membership. Our President was very eloquent about the occasion where the Board learned more about how DEIB representatives view the need for change and the hope that objective standards would help.

May I leave aside, for a moment, the constant, vexed discussion and disagreements about whether any of the proposed or rejected standards is, actually, scientifically objective …. may I add the issue of validity? Even before the objectivity of a standard…we need to know that a standard is valid.

That is, for those who are concerned about protecting OO SoP/EP, is it valid to be concerned about whether a Board member can demonstrate a distinctive work history that shows specific commitment to the OO SoP/EP?

It is not clear that past expertise in the wider field of conflict management (or any other) necessarily helps a person understand the singular nature of the theory and practice of OO SoP/EP. Many people understand one or another of our standards. Few people understand all four of the OO standards taken together.

For some experienced conflict managers, their past experience may indeed them help to understand OOs, but for many others, as we know, their different expertise may cloud their understanding, and still others struggle all the time to understand the differences among the professions of neutrals.

Organizational Ombuds are singular professionals, arguably unique among senior managers in conventional employment law in the US and elsewhere.

-There are many other managers designated as impartial or neutral.
-There are others construed with degrees of independence.
-There are many others who work under varying rules about confidentiality. However,

No other senior managers practice only informally. If the Formality Standard were not there, we would no longer be OOs.

I know of no other senior managers in US or other legal systems who have no management decision making authority, no authority for redress, and who assert that they do not represent their employers. And with whom interactions are voluntary.(And, by the way, who—nevertheless—can and do receive concerns from every cohort and about any work related issue and who make systems recommendations.)

If you think about it, each of our claims about the first three SoP depend—at least in the US—on our unique practice of informality. It is a huge part of our defense of confidentiality (and the underpinning for asking for shield laws). Practicing informally is only way we can claim independenceAnd… even internally, in our souls, in our practice it is a poignant bulwark for our impartiality/neutrality.

The Administrative Conference of the US (ACUS) discussed informality at length until they “got it.” In their 2016 Report, ACUS called informality a defining characteristic, and they did this, rather than calling informality a standard, because there are as yet no Federal laws about informality.

What we now call informality is exceedingly hard to grasp, unless you have practical experience with it, because it is singular, so unusual. Ella Wheaton, (the first OO for the Department of Justice) in her presentations to the American Bar Association long ago, explained this for several hours before distinguished employment lawyers “got it.” Look at the discussions of the past year throughout IOA. We still have members who are puzzled about informality.

So what does this mean for Board membership?

1) Mark Patterson’s proposal to the Board for a separate sub-Board for SoP/EP makes sense. An SoP/EP Board would lift this issue away from the issue of Board membership. And it would take the SoP/EP time-sink off the back of the Board. SoP/EP need to be discussed iteratively throughout the IOA affinity and sector groups, and surfaced in a layered process that a modern IOA Board cannot easily manage along with everything else.

2) For Board membership could we define sufficient evidence of understanding OOs differently? For example a nominee could be asked to present evidence of "distinctive, consistent commitment, in professional practice, to the OO SoP/EP.” Membership in IOA—when members may or may not deeply understand what they have asserted in “upholding the SoP”—would not, by itself, suffice.

We could offer examples….. Evidence of commitment in professional practice could include:

-years as an OO “endeavoring to practice as far as possible to the SoP/EP.” It could be
-research and writing and teaching about the theory and practice of the SoP. It could be
-some years of setting up SoP OO offices in an ICMS. It could be
-making a really great set of training videos acclaimed by OOs. It could be
-an undergraduate or graduate student, or administrator or faculty, or employee in a start-up, or union member, or pastor or doctor or lawyer, who worked effectively for many months or years, to persuade their organization to establish an OO office with a Charter or Policy or TOR. (The pioneers listed in these examples were very diverse.)

Thank you for considering this … and also for all your time over the years on building a new profession.


~ mary rowe


  1. I am glad the additional thoughts are being shared and discussions had, which was not going to happen until the last vote meeting ground to a halt. It may have been a messy meeting but when the vote was halted it allowed for these further discussions to occur.

  2. Amen! God bless parliamentary procedure.