And now, the conclusion of the Ombuds year in review for 2022...
Three important trends emerged this year and all are interrelated. Most significantly, the way Ombuds deliver their services has changed permanently as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: virtual meetings with visitors are now the norm. The rise of hybrid Ombuds practice has allowed more organizations to create part-time and interim positions, and to consider applicants from farther distances. At the same time, the market for practitioners has tightened considerably along with the general labor market and reputable organizations are having a hard time finding candidates. The tighter labor market is, perhaps, one reason that organizations are assigning their Ombuds incompatible collateral duties in diversity, equity and inclusion and Title IX.
COVID Revolutionized the Way Ombuds Work
Before the pandemic, only a few Ombuds provided services by phone or video. These were limited to a few multi-national companies and UN-affiliated organizations whose Ombuds served geographically dispersed stakeholders. By and large, Organizational Ombuds did their work face to face in small, quiet offices. The pandemic revolutionized the practice. About three years ago, this model was completely disrupted as Ombuds were forced to do their work virtually. Even now, those who have returned to work continue to offer appointments by phone and video. Many Ombuds report that their visitors prefer virtual meetings, which offer greater flexibility and privacy, compared to in-person meetings. The embrace of virtual Ombudswork seems to be permanent.
The new mode of working virtually has encouraged many organizations to hire Ombuds with flexible work arrangements. In the past year, at least 23 job postings have indicated the position was "hybrid" or "remote." The new Ombuds model is accelerating the recent trend of non-profit associations creating Ombuds programs to address misbehavior among members and conference attendees. In addition, many of the professional associations and industry organizations that have hired conference Ombuds in the past few years are also providing Ombuds services virtually. Hybrid Ombuds services may lead to the long-anticipated and financial viability of outsourced providers like MWI and Bravely.
Nonetheless, the Ombuds Labor Market Tightened
A decade ago, job postings for entry- and mid-level Ombuds could yield a hundred applicants or more. The job market has changed considerably in the past year or so. Now, there is much lower unemployment in the U.S. and there are many more Ombuds programs and job opportunities. As a result, there are fewer applicants and organizations are taking longer to fill positions. This includes: Halliburton (search open since July); Pomona College (open since July); School of the Art Institute of Chicago (open since July); Colorado College (open since June); University of the Pacific (open since May); Florida Gulf Coast University (open since April); Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and Blind (search open since March); University of Cape Town (open since February); Claremont Graduate University (open since January); University of Pennsylvania (filled after 10 months); and University of Oklahoma (filled after 15-month); Baylor College of Medicine (filled after two searches); and Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine (filled after two searches).
The Rise of "Chimera" Ombuds is Troubling and Unsustainable
In recent years, there has been a troubling and persistent trend: Ombuds are taking on compliance duties related to Title IX and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Granted, there is significant overlap in the knowledge, skills, and abilities in these roles, and the overall number of these professional roles is growing. It must be tempting, therefore, for organizations to combine these roles into a single position. For example:
- In 2020, the West Contra Costa Unified School District in Richmond, California, appointed its first Ombudsperson, with the role being filled by the district's Director of Educational Equity and Title IX;
- Seattle University assigned the Ombuds title to its Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion in 2021. The role was redefined and posted in 2022, but now reports directly to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion;
- The University of Kansas tapped its Ombuds to serve as the Interim Vice Provost for the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging in 2021;
- The University of the Pacific has an open search for a Senior Director of Community, Culture & Belonging/Ombuds which reports to the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion;
- This year, the University of West Florida appointed a Student Ombuds and gave the position to the Associate Vice President for Academic Engagement and Student Affairs, which includes oversight of the Offices of Equity and Inclusion, Title IX, Equal Opportunity, Diversity Programs;
- The Florida Institute of Technology combined the roles of its Ombuds and the acting Title IX Coordinator;
- Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, delegated its Ombuds duties to the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and
- Most recently, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation opened a search for its first DEI Coordinator/Organizational Ombuds.
In the short run, these combined positions are expedient: the organizations seem to be responding to the needs of their stakeholders by offering a wider range of services. However, the IOA standards of confidentiality, independence, informality, and impartiality are irreconcilable with the inherent duties for Title IX and DEI officers. In the long run, these chimera Ombuds are doomed to fail. Visitors are likely to mistrust the confidentiality of a person touted as the Ombuds who has a concurrent and conflicting duty to investigate any and all complaints. Eventually, the organizations may find out that the courts will not allow the fictional compartmentalization of roles in a single employee. Perhaps the Journal of IOA's forthcoming special issue, "The Ombud’s Office and Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Belonging" will offer some insights.
- The Ombuds Decade in Review;
- 11 Stories that Shaped the Ombuds Profession in the 2010's;
- 2020 Year in Review: Transitions; 2020 Year in Review: Signs of Hope; 2020 Year in Review: Courage and Crises;
- 2021 Year in Review: Transitions; 2021 Year in Review: Responding to Challenges; 2021 Year in Review: Setting the Stage for Positive Change
- 2022 Year in Review: Transitions; 2022 Year in Review: Cheers & Jeers.