The organizational ombuds model has been widely embraced for many years by colleges, universities, and progressive corporations as an important resource to ensure that students and employees have a neutral, confidential, informal resource available to assist when issues or conflict arise. In these times of crisis and change, the ombuds resource becomes an even more valuable resource.
In unsteady times, the fundamental design of ombuds makes its services adaptable and agile. The ombuds design tenets of confidentiality and informality make ombuds a good resource for informal connection though phone, video conferencing, and other distance-based formats. Ombuds are deeply experienced and adept at developing creative solutions to novel situations. This skill can be particularly useful in crisis situations where there are no established and proven approaches.
While the current pandemic crisis presents fresh challenges without pre-existing responses or methods, other crisis situations serve to illustrate how the basic attributes of the ombuds model, combined with its agility and adaptability, can provide an important resource for the population the ombuds serves. For example, catastrophic wildfire event occurred, which closed the ombuds’ work organization—a large national laboratory with over 15,000 workers – and forced the evacuation of an entire city. Because of its flexibility and adaptability, the Ombuds Office was identified as the point of contact to ensure that visitors and foreign nationals understood what was going on and had resources and a safe place to stay during the event. While other operations were closed, the Ombuds Office was designated as an essential function and was identified as a resource to ensure that all workers understood what was happening and the resources available to them.
In today’s evolving situation, the ombuds office continues to be a safe place to seek information and to report concerns. While ombuds are not typically designated to provide medical, psychological, or legal advice, ombuds are nonetheless highly skilled with helping people deal with an extremely wide array of personal concerns, regardless of the presenting situation. During a crisis, emotional issues, and reactive and potentially negative behaviors can surface. Even when operating in a “virtual” environment, the ombuds creates a zone of psychological safety to provide a “safe space” where a person can be heard and can speak up without fear of reprisal or negative consequences. Ombuds are skilled at helping people become self-aware and providing them with options and more productive approaches. Once concerns and feelings are expressed, people often take the next steps to move in productive directions toward resolution of the conflict or concerns at hand.
The organizational ombuds also serves as a valuable resource to leaders. Because of their widespread work and in-depth communications, ombuds can provide organizational leaders essential information and feedback concerning how people are perceiving and reacting to a crisis situation. Ombuds can serve as an important resource to enable leaders the headspace necessary to focus on crisis response. Ombuds can make referrals to appropriate resources that might otherwise create loads and leadership, and can serve as important communication resource, offering information about company actions, and new or changed policies or processes. All of these activities can readily be performed in a “virtual environment” and with “online visitors.” Beyond relieving leadership of added communication burdens, the enhanced communication ombuds can provide, can reduce the level of fear from the uncertainty in the community served. The ombuds can also serve as a valuable conduit of information by sharing information and suggestions received in while providing ombuds services.
In today’s situation, the organizational ombuds can work to help leadership address the demands of the situation using proven tools. To help people address today’s challenges, the organizational ombuds can:
Establish and reinforce connection: “Social distance” means does not mean losing connection. It means maintaining physical distance for epidemiological purposes. During these times of change and unpredictability, remaining socially connected is essential for everyone. Ombuds invariably establish connections with leaders, key players and colleagues in the organization.
Build trust: Trust is a key required element during uncertainty and crisis time. Without trust, the challenges communication and compliance challenges of the organization increase. The ombuds builds trust as an independent and impartial resource in the organization, listening without judgement and providing realistic options. In today’s situation, two-way communication between leadership and others in the community or the organization is critical.
Provide objective perspective and data: Today’s challenges are unprecedented. The ombuds provides objective perspectives and data about the issues. These data and the themes and systemic trends that emerge, are clearly valuable to leadership in assessing its options and approaches moving forward. Ombuds can provide valuable insights bearing on leadership decisions.
Conflict management tool: “Shelter in place” and “home quarantine” can mean a lot of together time, which can create its own challenges. The weight of what we, as a community generally face can increase conflict potential as well. Core to the ombuds role is to assist with a difficult conversation and to provide options and approaches for conflict resolution. Ombuds are experienced in working with people with different communication and personality styles. Ombuds can help bridge the differences and manage the range of reactions to crisis that are somewhat predictable, depending on the person’s style.
Today’s crisis will eventually end. How we come through the crisis and how we emerge from it on the other side can be strongly affected by the tools and approaches that we use to collectively work past the challenges. The organizational ombuds can be a very valuable tool in these circumstances.
Bruce MacAllister, J.D. Ombuds Program Director, International Foundation for On-line Responsibility and Diana Mosonyl Founder and Executive Director, Hungarian Organizational Ombudsman Association