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HR Connection: HR and the organizational ombudsperson

What’s the difference?

Dawn Sullivan

Dawn Sullivan

Effective issue and conflict management, clearly defined policies and procedures, and strong strategic leadership impact an organization’s reputation, its stakeholders and its ability to attract and retain talent. It is essential that all organizations establish formal channels, such as human resources, legal departments and management.

There is, nevertheless, an unmistakable value in having an organizational ombudsperson (an ombuds) as an informal channel available to members of an organization. An ombudsperson provides an informal, confidential, impartial and independent resource for individuals to raise concerns, consider various options to address and resolve internal and external disputes, and examine all aspects of an issue in order to achieve better decisions that impact on the organization and the individual.

As a formal reporting office within the management structure, human resources professionals must focus on protecting the best interests of the organization. Consequently, this or any formal reporting office cannot always guarantee confidentiality, independence or impartiality to an individual or group.

There are times when individuals or groups want to explore issues and concerns without worry of any formal action and an ombuds office is a great resource because the office is not an office of notice. The ombuds, with permission from an individual or group, is positioned to anonymously explore and gather information that can help inform the decisions and actions of those who come to the office for assistance

This person can facilitate dispute resolution processes through information gathering, informal mediation and/or negotiation. Throughout the year, managers spend some of their time managing conflicts that arise, which is costly in both time spent and productivity lost for all involved. The ombuds office serves as a conduit between conflicting parties, is a source for information on policy and procedure, and advocates only for fair treatment and fair process. Ignoring conflict in the workplace can be not only costly to an organization in motivation, time, and productivity, but deflated employee morale can negatively impact a company’s reputation.

An ombuds office is able to also identify and share with organizational leaders recurring and problematic policies or procedures, issues of fairness and equality, and decisions or actions affecting individuals or groups, and thereby allows an organization the opportunity to make preemptive changes to create and sustain a positive and productive company environment.

Moreover, the ombuds is able to report these recurring issues in ways that protect the identity of individuals or groups who raise the concerns — thereby increasing the likelihood that individuals will be willing to bring concerns forward. It is in knowing the organization’s goals, strategies, policies, procedures, priorities, ethics, and principle values that allows an ombuds an advantage in recognizing emerging trends, ongoing complaints, and identifying options for effective and sustainable changes.

One of the human resources professional’s roles is to ensure organizational ethics and compliance is a top priority for everyone both internally and externally. They also facilitate all leadership and personnel recruitment activities, ensuring selection and continuing employee development encompasses its ethics, and make sure clear and precise policies, procedures and programming are in place, and all are appropriate.

The human resources office makes and modifies policy whereas the ombuds office does not have any formal role in the creation or revision of policies. Where human resources professionals are trained and authorized to conduct formal investigations, an organizational ombuds is not. It is imperative for an ombuds to provide information about how and who to contact should they wish to pursue the formal channels within an organization. Organizational ombuds work as part of an organization’s conflict resolution resource network.

An ombudsperson does not provide legal or psychological advice but is also expected to have access to those resources and referral sources for employees.

Examples of issues and questions individuals might raise in an ombuds office include:

• Inappropriate treatment of employees by administrators or colleagues;

• Uneven application of policies and procedures;

• Misleading or unethical behaviors and practices;

• Diversity-related concerns or mistreatment;

• Career progression;

• Equitable and fair treatment in all types of employment practices;

• Harassment and discrimination; and

• Policy violations.

It is in knowing the organization’s goals, strategies, policies, procedures, priorities, ethics and principal values that allows for recognizing emerging trends, ongoing complaints, and identifying options for effective and sustainable changes.

As such, the organizational ombudsperson and human resources are important strategic partners which do not duplicate, rather complement each other’s roles to help promote change and organizational success.

Dawn Sullivan is the senior staff specialist, Ombuds Office, for Rochester Institute of Technology. She has an M.S. in Strategic Leadership and a B.S. in Human Resource Development. She is a member of the Development & Community Relations Committee for East House, whose mission is to assist individuals recovering from mental illness, substance use disorder or both. This article is brought to you by the Rochester affiliate of the National HR Association, a local professional HR organization focused on advancing the career development, planning and leadership of HR professionals. Visit www.humanresources.org for more information.