Bad Chemistry At Work? The Organizational Ombudsman Can Help You

If you have a work-related conflict, an ombudsman may be a better solution than constant prayer, weeping sorrowfully, or burying your head in the ground like an ostrich.

“My senior colleague wants to be co-first author on my paper, but I did 80 percent of the work!”

“My PI is not letting me graduate… I’m desperate.”

“I can’t stand my labmate who bullies me. I can’t do anything about it because I depend on him.”

“I hate my boss.”

AsianScientist (May 19, 2011) – The above scenarios are a dime a dozen, but not unexpected or shocking. All workplaces consist of people, and people are intrinsically flawed characters who have their own personal ambitions and unspoken reasons for acting (or should we say, acting out) in a particular manner.

But what is more disconcerting is, most people don’t know of a hidden gem – the ombudsman – who is also known as the ombudsperson, or ombuds for short. The ombudsman is such a terrific addition to any organization that it is almost a crime that most people don’t know this position exists. The word itself sounds alien to most, eliciting responses of: “Ombard? What? Who’s that? Why should I waste my time speaking to him?”

Finally, a disclaimer that this guide was written not by an ombudsman, but certainly written with the hope that you speak to one if you have a work-related issue that cannot be resolved by constant prayer, weeping sorrowfully, working at odd hours to avoid that person, or burying your head in the ground like an ostrich.


First, what is an organizational ombudsman?

An organizational ombudsman is an individual who assists in resolving conflicts or disputes within the organization. There are organizational ombudsmen in all sectors: corporate, academic, governmental, non-governmental, and non-profit.

In universities, the ombudsman is typically a high-ranking individual appointed by the President or the Provost. This person has no executive management power and does not report to Deans or Department chairs. To summarize, this type of organizational hierarchy allows you to speak freely without fear of recrimination.

The ombudsman is expected to carry out his or her duties in a neutral, impartial, confidential, informal and independent manner, according to the International Ombudsman Association (IOA) Standards of Practice.


Why that strange name, where does that word come from?

The word “Ombudsman” is Scandinavian and means “representative” or “proxy” with different versions: umboðsmaður (Icelandic and Faroese), ombudsmann (Norwegian) and ombudsmand (Danish).

Variations of the term exist (i.e. ombuds, ombudsperson) and are commonly used besides ombudsman.


What services do an ombudsman provide?

The ombudsman can assist with issues like workplace disputes, interpersonal difficulties with colleagues, subordinates or supervisors, preparing for a difficult conversation, harassment, cultural misunderstandings, bureaucratic frustrations, and incivility, among others.

Following a request for assistance, the ombudsman will take one or more of the following actions:

  1. Listen carefully to the concern.
  2. Explain relevant student rights and responsibilities.
  3. Review relevant university policies or regulations.
  4. Suggest fair and equitable options.
  5. Refer the individual to an appropriate university resource.
  6. Investigate, when necessary.

In some cases, the ombudsman will engage in shuttle diplomacy between parties who find it difficult to solve a problem between themselves.

When the organizational ombudsman spots specific trends and identifies problem areas that exist within the organization, he or she may make recommendations to high-level leaders and executives in a confidential manner.


OK, sounds useful. What can the ombudsman not do?

Most importantly, the ombudsman is not an advocate for individuals, groups or entities; instead, the ombudsman is an advocate for the principles of fairness and equity. This means that the ombudsman does not take sides, nor does he or she determine “guilt” or “innocence” of those being accused of wrong doing.

The ombudsman is not a lawyer. He or she does not provide legal service, represent students or instructors at academic grievance or disciplinary hearings or mediate disputes between or among faculty or between faculty and administrators. He or she does not accept formal complaints for the organization, nor assist with hearings or judicial processes that may arise from an investigation.

Although the ombudsman typically keeps no case records and keeps near absolute confidentiality, an exception remains where there appears to be an imminent risk of serious harm, and an ombudsman can see no responsible option other than breaking confidence. Bearing that in mind, most organizational ombuds programs report that they can almost always find “other responsible options”, such as helping a visitor to make an anonymous report about what appears to be the problem.


Are they like doctors who have a code of ethics?

Yes, that is correct. According to the International Ombudsman Association Code of Ethics, an ombudsman practices:

  1. Independence: The Ombudsman is independent in structure, function, and appearance to the highest degree possible within the organization.
  2. Neutrality and Impartiality: The Ombudsman is impartial, does not take sides or represent any individuals. The Ombudsman does not engage in any situation which could create a conflict of interest.
  3. Confidentiality: The Ombudsman keeps information in confidence (unless the visitor gives specific permission or discloses a threat of self-harm or harm to others).
  4. Informality: The Ombudsman provides an alternative to formal channels, does not participate in formal adjudicative or administrative procedure related to concerns brought to his/her attention.

You can also check out some Frequently Asked Question at the International Ombudsman Association’s website.

…… Lastly, if you are caught in a pickle, please stay positive. If something is bothering you more than simply interpersonal relationships in the lab, you may also consider a counselor, who may be able to help you with more personal issues. Good luck and all the best!

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Copyright: AsianScientist Magazine

(Editor’s note: This article was featured by The Ombuds Blog, which recommended the article as a source of information for ombuds who work with researchers.)

Asian Scientist Magazine is an award-winning science and technology magazine that highlights R&D news stories from Asia to a global audience. The magazine is published by Singapore-headquartered Wildtype Media Group.

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