Shifting from Harm to Harmony

Your Business’ Best Kept Secret: The Ombuds

For two years in a row, Samantha was passed up for what she thought was a well-deserved promotion, while others with seemingly less experience and qualifications were moving ahead at her company. Samantha was confused and tried to speak to her manager about the situation, but she found the conversation unhelpful and even belittling. As she contemplated quitting and finding work elsewhere, she ultimately decided to go to the ombuds, to figure out her options. Let’s explore why.

What is an Ombuds?

An “Ombuds’’ is a role that is a growing field of practice but still relatively new to corporate settings in the US. The modern origins of the word “Ombuds” can be traced to Sweden in 1809 where it meant “representative” in a government context, but the modern organizational ombuds serves as an institution’s dedicated conflict coach and consultant. An ombuds helps employees, managers, and even senior executives navigate through sensitive situations, difficult conversations, or areas of concern or confusion. Ombuds are available as an independent, neutral resource to map out what is happening, whom it affects, and what can be done about the situation. They also may report areas of concern or systemic issues to the highest level of a company.

An ombuds is a neutral and confidential entity, which means not being beholden to the institution and that all conversations are kept private. Typically, the ombuds do not record or report specific cases to anyone at the organization. So, when Samantha turned to the ombuds, she knew that nothing about her conversation would be shared with other departments, including her supervisor, HR, or Legal.

In contrast to an HR department, the Ombuds is informal, which means that it does not investigate, initiate legal action, or enforce rules or policies. This way, anyone with a concern can feel safe to share and speak freely. By turning to the ombuds, Samantha knew that since her supervisor would not hear about her concerns, she did not need to fear retaliation. In fact, any situation where a conflict or issue is affecting workplace productivity is a welcome conversation to have with an ombuds. Samantha could share as much or as little as she liked, without worrying that something she’d say could trigger an investigation or legal involvement.

Most importantly, since the ombuds is a service that is visitor-centric, Samantha could choose to speak with the ombuds briefly to get a few thoughts cleared or return multiple times, as her situation unfolded.

Why work with an Ombuds?

The goal for the organization is to have a resource for employees to share their concerns openly, so that they may be addressed early-on. The goal for the individual employee is to have a resource for discussing the situation without necessarily involving other parties.

Employees and staff at all levels turn to the ombuds for situations where they find themselves confused, frustrated, or at a loss for answers on how to handle their situation or conflict. Ombuds relate to all situations with care and compassion, so that visitors can feel safe to share whatever is upsetting them.

When does someone consult an ombuds?

People visit with the ombuds at any point in the conflict process and at varying points in their careers. Some are confused or frustrated when they first join a team that isn’t communicating well. Others are at wits-end with their supervisors and frustrated with the status-quo. Sometimes, there is a particularly sensitive situation of harassment or discrimination, and the employee wants to map out what formal steps to take. Leaders and executives consult with the ombuds to help them better handle their team dynamics. Whether the conflict is old and festering or new and about to explode, the ombuds can help visitors figure out their best course of action.

In Samantha’s case, she decided to visit the ombuds when she found herself struggling to clarify which direction to take. The ombuds helped her figure out what exactly was happening, how it was affecting her, and what she wanted to do about it.

How does an ombuds help a visitor?

Ombuds help visitors clarify goals and desired outcomes, while also exploring the emotions, underlying needs, and complex dynamics that are at play. As a pro-active resource, they can help leaders, managers, and team members figure out ways to build collaboration and improve communication patterns, potentially avoiding conflicts and breakdowns. Once a conflict has erupted, they can help visitors figure out how they want to respond and what steps they want to take to move forward.

As a result of her conversation with the ombuds, Samantha gained much-needed confidence and clarity to confront her supervisor. In the end, she was able to discuss the situation with him, along with her desire for a promotion, and he admitted that he had communicated poorly and should have been more conscientious. The ombuds played an essential role in helping Samantha shift the dynamic with her boss, to be more open, clear, and mutually respectful.

How does an ombuds help the institution?

There are countless benefits to having an ombuds. Some are tangible, such as lowering turnover rates, preventing lawsuits, or even voicing safety concerns and avoiding disasters. Others are less tangible, such as a happier and more collaborative workplace. When employees utilize an ombuds, other departments (such as HR and Legal) are spared from having a greater number of formal complaints, many of which don’t help complainants resolve their original issue. The organization also benefits from having an office/person with an ear to the ground that can track trends and let leadership know about systemic and organizational issues. An ombuds can be a strategic support for real and lasting change within a company.

Not only did Samantha benefit from visiting the ombuds, but it saved the company both the cost of turnover as well as the disruption of workflow, if she had quit.

Ultimatey, Samantha and her boss hit more of a groove in their communication, so that her project goals and professional development plans could be better aligned. Most importantly, once she felt safe to speak with the ombuds, she could continue to check in with any other workplace issues she’d have in the future. Her experience with the ombuds helped create a dynamic with her boss that was more transparent, fair, and productive — affecting not only Samantha’s workplace satisfaction but the overall productivity of the entire team.

Establishing an ombuds office brings abundant value to an organization. The ombuds can help:

  • Prevent high rates of turnover
  • Address low morale
  • Increase overall productivity
  • Improve team dynamics
  • Introduce healthy approaches to conflict
  • Communicate trends or concerning patterns to senior management
  • Mitigate risk of costly legal expenses and bad PR
  • Create a sense of safety and trust

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Melody Wang

Melody Wang is a Conflict Consultant with the Harmony Strategies Group and CEO of Wang Mediation, which she founded upon graduation from the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law with an MA in Alternative Dispute Resolution. Melody is a panel mediator for the New York City Family Court and serves on the Board of Directors at the Association for Conflict Resolution, Greater New York (ACR-GNY). Prior to moving to New York, Melody was an experienced civil and community mediator in Los Angeles, California, working closely with non-profits, small claim courts and the California federal court. She also led selected trainings and workshops on dispute resolution within the Asian-American community in California.  Melody has lived in the U.S., Taiwan, China and Singapore, is fluent in English, Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese, and especially enjoys engaging in international relations and cross-cultural conflict systems.

Dara Rossi

Dara Rossi, Ph.D. is a Conflict & Strategy Consultant with the Harmony Strategies Group. She has more than 20 years of experience in the field of education and has worked with students from kindergarten through the university graduate level. Additionally, she has facilitated professional development for educators and administrators across all points on the education continuum. After10 years of service in the Department of Teaching and Learning Southern Methodist University, she launched her coaching and consulting business while continuing to serve as an adjunct professor. She holds a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, an MBA, an MA in Dispute Resolution, and an MAT in Education, and BS in Human Development.

Isar Mahanian

Isar Mahanian, M.Sc. is a Conflict & Strategy Consultant with the Harmony Strategies Group. She is an active mediator who coaches new mediators in the program in which she serves. Isar has worked at a fast-paced technology start-up as the Head of Human Resources, leading senior executives to mitigate and resolve workplace conflicts and creating system level improvements for employees within the company. She holds a Master’s of Science degree in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution from Columbia University. 

Kimberly Jackson Davidson

Kimberly Jackson Davidson is currently the University Ombudsperson at George Mason University and member of the Harmony Strategies Group. She spent two decades at Oberlin College in Ohio, holding positions in the Office of the Dean of Students and as Visiting Lecturer in African American Studies. During her final five and a half years there, she served all campus constituencies as Ombudsperson and Director of the Yeworkwha Belachew Center for Dialogue (YBCD). Davidson is active within the International Ombuds Association (IOA), the California Caucus of College and University Ombuds (CCCUO), and the Ombuds Section of the Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR). She earned a B.A. in English Literature from Spelman College in 1986 and an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in African Literature in 1991.

Hector Escalante

Hector Escalante is an experienced Ombuds and learning and development professional with over seven years of ombuds experience and over twenty years of experience developing and teaching course offerings which promote inclusion, healthy communication, and conflict resolution. He is the Director of the Ombuds Office at the University of California, Merced, having served many years as the organizational ombuds at the University of the Pacific. He is an ombuds partner with Harmony Strategies Group, and a consulting ombuds for Earthjustice and Union of Concerned Scientists.  Hector holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education. He is a United States Marine Corps veteran, a husband and father to four children. Hector’s passions include treating all with fairness, equity, dignity, and compassion and good food. 

Stuart Baker

Stuart Baker is a heart-centered strategic consultant with the Harmony Strategies Group. He makes use of all his experience in the construction industry, mediation and presenting, combined with years of spiritual pursuit, to offer a unique and broad sensitivity in his consulting work. He loves helping people deepen their harmony and connection with others, and with themselves. We are honored to have Mr. Stuart Baker on our team, pioneer of “Conscious Cooperation” – his book can be ordered here

Kira Nurieli

Kira Nurieli is the CEO of the Harmony Strategies Group and is an expert mediator, conflict coach, trainer/facilitator, consultant, and restorative practices facilitator. She has spent upwards of twenty years helping clients handle conflict and improve communication strategies and has presented at numerous conferences and symposia as a subject matter expert. She holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University and a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Performance from Barnard College. She especially enjoys helping individuals, teams, and lay-leaders become more impactful and empowered in their work and is honored to work alongside her esteemed colleagues with the Harmony Strategies Group.

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