What’s in a Name: Ombudsperson, Ombudsman, and Ombuds?
The name “ombudsman” (om budz man) comes from Swedish and literally means “representative.” At the most fundamental level, an ombudsman is one who assists individuals and groups in the resolution of conflicts or concerns. There are a number of different titles or names for this position: “ombudsman,” “ombudsperson” or “ombuds” among others. (For the purpose of this document, the term “ombudsman” will be used.) Ombudsmen work in all types of organizations, including government agencies, colleges and universities, corporations, hospitals and other medical facilities, and news organizations.
There are different types of ombudsmen with different roles, functional responsibilities and standards of practice including: organizational ombudsman, classical ombudsman, and advocate ombudsman. While the focus of this document is to describe what an organizational ombudsman does—and does not do—it is important to distinguish between different types of ombudsmen. The standards of practice and functional responsibilities can be very different for different types of ombudsmen.
The organizational ombudsman is defined as: “a designated neutral who is appointed or employed by an organization to facilitate the informal resolution of concerns of employees, managers, students and, sometimes, external clients of the organization.”1 The classical ombudsman … “typically is appointed by a legislative body to represent the public with concerns of the public with regards to the conduct of governmental agencies; they conduct formal investigations.”2 An advocate ombudsman is defined as one who “advocates on behalf of a designated population, such as patients in long-term care facilities.”3
The Organizational Ombudsman—Role and Function
The primary duties of an organizational ombudsman are (1) to work with individuals and groups in an organization to explore and assist them in determining options to help resolve conflicts, problematic issues or concerns, and (2) to bring systemic concerns to the attention of the organization for resolution.
An organizational ombudsman operates in a manner to preserve the confidentiality of those seeking services, maintains a neutral/impartial position with respect to the concerns raised, works at an informal level of the organizational system, and is independent of formal organizational structures. Successfully fulfilling that primary function in a manner consistent with the IOA Standards of Practice4 requires a number of activities on the part of the ombudsman while precluding others.
Activities and functions most frequently undertaken by an ombudsman include, but are not limited to:
• Listens and understands issues while remaining neutral with respect to the facts. The ombudsman doesn’t listen to judge or to decide who is right or wrong. The ombudsman listens to understand the issue from the perspective of the individual. This is a critical step in developing options for resolution.
• Assists in reframing issues and developing and helping individuals evaluate options. This helps individuals identify the interests of various parties to the issues and helps focus efforts on potential options to meet those interests.
• Guides or coaches individuals to deal directly with other parties, including the use of formal resolution resources of the organization. An ombudsman often seeks to help individuals improve their skill and their confidence in giving voice to their concerns directly.
• Refers individuals to appropriate resolution resources. An ombudsman may refer individuals to one or more formal organizational resources that can potentially resolve the issue.
• Assists in surfacing issues to formal resolution channels. When an individual is unable or unwilling to surface a concern directly, the ombudsman can assist by helping give voice to the concern and /or creating an awareness of the issue among appropriate decision-makers in the organization.
• Facilitates informal resolution processes. An ombudsman may help to resolve issues between parties through various types of informal mediation.
• Identifies new issues and opportunities for systemic change for the organization. The unique positioning of the ombudsman serves to provide unfiltered information that can produce insight to issues and resolutions. The ombudsman is a source of detection and early warning of new issues and a source of suggestions of systemic change to improve existing processes.
What an ombudsman does not do:
Because of the informal, neutral, confidential and independent positioning of an ombudsman in an organization, they typically do not undertake the following roles or activities:
• Participate in formal investigations or play any role in a formal issue resolution process
• Serve in any other organizational role that would compromise the neutrality of the ombudsman role
• Receive notice for the organization
• Make binding decisions or mandate policies
• Create or maintain records or reports for the organization
Skills, Training and Professional Requirements of Ombudsmen
The most important skills of an effective ombudsman include active listening, communicating successfully with a diverse range of people, remaining nonjudgmental, having the courage to speak up and address problems at higher levels within an organization, problem solving and analytical ability, and conflict resolution skills. Specific career background or academic degree is less important than acquiring and demonstrating the skill set described above. Within the ranks of IOA, you will find outstanding ombudsmen from numerous professional and academic backgrounds, including scientists, human resource professionals, mediators, professors, line managers, engineers, lawyers, accountants, and consultants.
Some organizational ombudsmen are hired internally, assuming this role after fulfilling previous roles in an organization where they have exhibited the above mentioned skills and established a widely known reputation for integrity, confidentiality and knowledge of organizational processes across functions. When hiring from the outside, an organization will often seek someone who has a background in conflict resolution and/or has established standing as an ombudsman through prior organizational experience. Ombudsmen coming from outside the organization, with no history or relationships, may be able to provide fresh perspectives and the perception of neutrality may be enhanced. Organizations might also turn to an independent ombudsman who contracts his or her services.
Formal training is invaluable in preparing for an ombudsman role. IOA offers a series of professional training courses that include skills training as well as practical instruction in establishing and maintaining an ombudsman office. Formal training in mediation and/or other conflict resolution processes is also very valuable. In order to stay on the leading edge of critical ombudsman issues, such as confidentiality and privilege, and to maintain and enhance ombudsman skills, active membership in relevant professional associations, such as the International Ombudsman Association, is vital. These associations also provide invaluable information and professional support.
To learn more about the organizational ombudsman role, read "The Organizational Ombudsman," by Howard Gadlin and Mary Rowe in Oxford Handbooks Online.
Why create an ombuds office?
- Board Champions for the Ombudsman, Directors Monthy, National Association of Corporate Directors, May 2008
- Time for an Ombudsman?, Corporate Secretary Magazine, 2011
1 Wesley, Margo, The Compleat Ombuds A Spectrum of Resolution Services, CPER Journal No. 166 (June 2004).
2 Rowe, Mary, Options, Functions and Skills-What an Organizational Ombudsperson Might Want to Know (1995).