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Ombuds and Mediation

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. " – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities was first published in 1859. The story takes place in 1775 during the French-English war. It was a time of crisis, with both nations facing social turmoil and upheaval.  In 1809, Sweden’s experts in conflict resolution conceived the term, ombudsman. Perhaps, it was coincidental or Charles Dickens may have simply understood that conflict, small or large is such that of a tale of two cities.  Whether a conflict in an organization is between a subordinate and a manager; or husband and wife; or simply between a tenant and property manager, conflict arises between two or more people in any environment! When conflict ascends to the parties involved, it comes at the worst of times.

Looking back, the English term "ombudsman" was originally translated from the Swedish word, "umbuds" or man from the Old Norse, "umboosmaor," or representative.

Today, the term ombudsman serves as a neutral representative. Its function is becoming a necessity in various industries including, healthcare, academia, private, public, and non-profit organizations. The function of the Ombudsman continues to prosper with its virtues of integrity and principles of practice developed by the International Ombudsman Association, which serves as a foundational home of assisting entities in setting up their Ombudsman Offices. The global organization has ensured that the principles of neutrality, confidentiality, independence and informality sustain the ethical practice of an organizational ombudsman.

In my experience, the success of an organizational ombudsman has been true to its virtues in ensuring that the workforce is not silenced. In America, we mainly operate with a top-down management structure, "ruling with an iron thumb" in the sense of it, which cultivates an internal culture of silence. Specifically, a corporate culture that silences the workforce, to a point that impacts mission and compromises strategic decision making, as employees are fearful of speaking up!

Although outdated management trends continue to exist in American companies, many of the world’s largest corporate entities today are successfully transitioning their company culture by encapsulating psychological safety. The term, ‘psychological safety’ was originally created by Amy Edmonson, a professor at Harvard Business School. Psychological safety does not refer to whistleblowing, rather it implies a safe space. The term originated as a result of organizations’ failure to accept criticism, and/or allow employees to speak of their concerns, eventually impacting the mission. Many of these concerns are beyond the usual complaints.

Organizations today are slowly adopting the concept of an Organizational Ombudsman. Among the standards of practice, an organizational Ombudsman provides a constant safe space. From senior leadership to staff, the Ombudsman’s office is a physical and psychological safety net, where employees are able to vent their issues, thoughts and concerns in a confidential and impartial manner. Space ensures neutrality, which lacks judgment; confidentiality, which serves as the ultimate security; and a gatekeeper, while ensuring checks and balances, and compliance of rules and regulations. The organizational Ombudsman serves as a neutral voice when conflict arises, providing the psychosomatic safety for both the organization and its employees; while addressing systemic trends and corporate nuisances that impact high turnover, formal complaints, and low production/morale. The levels of conflict may vary for all those involved and not necessarily at during ill-favored moments.  The benefits of an organizational ombudsman are far greater in sustaining a healthy corporate culture and allowing its workforce to be progressive, creative, adaptive to change, new management and generations entering the workforce.  An organizational Ombudsman, in my experience, has proven to reduce turnover, increase morale and production, while decreasing formal employee complaints.

The duty of an effective organizational Ombudsman is to understand structural systemic patterns, addressing long-withstanding issues, while changing the mindset and shifting behavior through cognitive behavior exploration. It is vital for the Ombudsman to understand the depths of how conflict impacts the mind, body, and soul of an individual; to effectively address their issues via transformative conflict resolution methodologies. As an Ombudsman, I continuously operate in a neutral, grey zone, while keeping an open mind and line of communications to successfully mitigate an individual’s issue. A successful organizational Ombudsman can further address systemic issues through tailored training and application of the science of conflict management.

Indeed, it becomes necessary for an efficacious organizational ombudsman to be an operative listener, diligent communicator while serving as a mentor and coach to the workforce as well as senior level managers.

Although Dickens’ novel addresses societal conflict, like an Ombudsman, I observe consistent conflict in current societal issues that spill into organizational chaos. The discourses in society impact how individuals think, feel, and act in the workplace. And in conjunction with company cultural issues, trends prove that both areas do overlap. For example, as an organizational Ombudsman, I have had the opportunity to address gender bias, racism, performance-driven stress, organizational structural inconsistencies, unethical hiring practices, workplace bullying, and sexual harassment. Certain issues brought into the workplace were influenced by societal conflicts such as #metoomovement or riots in Charlottesville, VA. In my experience, understanding how to navigate techniques of a conflict resolution specialist, conflict coach, ombudsman, and mentor, while simultaneously applying conflict resolution theory, contributes to shifting the mindset and altering behavior. To be an organizational Ombudsman is a unique opportunity that allows me great personal satisfaction in assisting individuals in coping with real-life issues brought into the workplace, while ensuring the well-being of the personnel and organization, simultaneously. The organizational ombudsman function is that of a revolving door, which provides conflict resolution subject matter experts, with a unique opportunity to address sensitive matters in obscure environments.   Just as societies during the French-English war in 1775 faced turmoil, our environments, both private and professional, today, experience disorder and discourse, setting the precedence of new norms. The organizational Ombudsman is the constant in organizational discourse that helps to mitigate these new norms in business and corporate cultures. 


Bina Patel

Bina Patel PhD is the Founder & CEO of Bina Consulting LLC. Dr. Patel is a distinguished conflict resolution practitioner who provides an informal and confidential forum organizations, families, and individuals seeking to mitigate conflict. Her work focuses on coaching and mentoring children, adults and employees on making conflict management a… MORE >

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