Ombuds are helpful through crisis, change, and when handling sensitive issues. Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Your Business’ Best Kept Secret: The Ombuds

Harmony Strategies Group
5 min readJul 13, 2021

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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

Written by: Isar Mahanian, Strategic Consultant, Harmony Strategies Group & Kira Nurieli, CEO, Harmony Strategies Group. Edited by Maayan Milgram, Social Media editor, Harmony Strategies Group

Want to hear more about how an ombuds can help you and your company?! Call the Harmony Strategies Group at (917) 410–0742 or email: info@harmonystrategies.com

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Harmony Strategies Group

We help folks grow from conflict to resilience. Visit harmonystrategies.com for more content from mediators, ombuds, and conflict coaches..