interesting jobs: interview with an ombuds

I was recently contacted by someone from the International Ombuds Association, suggesting that Ask a Manager readers might be interested in learning about the work that ombuds (previously called ombudsmen) do. I learned a little more, and it is fascinating!

Ombuds help employees navigate workplace conflicts and organizational processes, including helping them identify their concerns and figure out how to tell their stories in a way where they’ll be heard and can advocate effectively for themselves. They’ll also spot issues and raise them to the broader organization.

Ombuds are impartial; rather than taking sides or advocating for particular outcomes, their focus is on ensuring a fair process. Their work is also informal, independent, and confidential. They’re not part of HR; in most companies, they’re not in the usual chain of command structure at all and instead report directly to the top.

I spoke with Roy Baroff, who is the faculty and staff ombudsman at North Carolina State University, to learn more about how ombuds work.

Thanks for talking with me! First, what kind of organizations typically have ombuds?

The make-up of the International Ombuds Association includes a majority of higher ed (university) followed by corporate, governmental, and association ombuds. There’s a growing number of K-12 ombuds, along with conference ombuds. Additionally, a number of towns and cities have ombuds that serve both internal and external constituents.

Larger organizations may be more likely to have an ombuds; however, we are seeing some shift in that smaller organizations may contract with an external part-time ombuds instead of hiring a full-time employee to take on the role. For example, I know an external ombuds who provides services to two “small” higher ed institutions on a part-time contract basis.

Who do you report to, and is that typical of how it’s normally set up?

The best practices are for an organizational ombuds to report to the highest possible level of the organization. The reporting is set up outside the usual structure to better support the independence of the ombuds. At NC State, my high-level administrative reporting is to the Chancellor and Provost, along with others for more operational support.

This supports independence of the office as well as access across an organization. In terms of set up, for example, I meet each semester separately with the Chancellor and Provost and also have regular meetings with leadership focused on working with faculty and staff.

What kind of background do you have that brought you to this role? And what kind of training did you get to do this work?

I came to this role seeking to bring my significant experience as a mediator, attorney, and educator in the conflict resolution field and connect it with an organization. That’s the ombuds role – an embedded conflict engagement/resolution professional.

Ombuds training is offered by IOA and provides a foundation for the work. Training and education as a mediator, group facilitator, and other communications concepts are also important. In terms of my background, I have extensive experience in the conflict resolution field (mediation) along with strong communication and analytical skills developed as an attorney. I also think my educational background in cultural anthropology helps me think about individuals and systems.

You mentioned that the ombuds doesn’t take sides or advocate for particular outcomes, but rather the focus is on fair process. Can you talk more about what that looks like in practice?

Let’s use a case example. Some years ago a faculty member contacted me about a departmental voting issue. It’s typical that faculty “vote” on promotions for other faculty and in this case, the faculty visitor to my office had participated in the discussions but decided not to vote. Their decision not to vote was not kept confidential as they expected, and the faculty member experienced difficulty within their department. They did not think the process was fair.

I met with the faculty member and we discussed a range of options that they could take. These included informal conversations with department leadership to formal grievance. As ombuds, I helped the faculty member explore options and determine what they were seeking, yet it’s for the faculty member to decide how to proceed. Another option we discussed was for me as ombuds to share the issue at senior leadership levels without disclosing the specific unit. I did so and it turned out there was a need to clarify the confidentiality of the “not to vote” decision. As a result, the situation was clarified across the university and not just for the individual. This was about clarifying a process that made it fair for all.

Interesting! Can you share other examples?

For almost every case, I meet directly with the person (we call those we meet with “visitors”) to learn about the concern and then develop and discuss options. The ombuds role is designed to be a navigator, to empower people to make their own decisions about how to proceed, and to identify and connect them with resources and coach them through the process, all while maintaining an impartial role and the confidentiality of the contact.

Here are several case examples from 2021:

* A unit had experienced diversity and inclusion issues and was “dealing” with it in-house. Per the staff member, the self-help efforts were making matters worse and creating a very tense environment. People were being directed to call each other out in group emails. Additionally, the staff member had experienced a challenging interaction that was impacting inclusion. I reviewed various DEI resources on campus and supported the employee in their contacts with services.

* A staff member was seeking additional resources for their position, including compensation and staffing assistance, and was also considering an offer from another university. We discussed options, including a retention discussion with leadership, and I helped plan that discussion strategy. The staff member later reported that discussion went well and additional resources were being committed to the position to support both the individual staff member and the unit as a whole, including compensation.

* A faculty member sought assistance to address student behaviors/statements during class in virtual breakout rooms. The class was intended to bring different perspectives together and clear communication guidelines were in place. Nonetheless, one student made comments that others felt were “too strong” and they did not seem willing to listen to other viewpoints. Some remarks were felt to be microaggressions. I helped the faculty member connect with existing resources, along with developing strategies for addressing the behaviors, including using the interactions as a learning experience for the student and the class.

Employees often worry about confidentiality when escalating a concern, and particularly that it will come back to bite them in some way — like that their manager will end up retaliating against them, even if only subtly. You mentioned that confidentiality is a key part of the ombuds process. Do you find you need to do anything special to assure employees they won’t face negative repercussions for talking with you?

Confidentiality is, in my opinion, the most important standard in ombuds practice. The IOA developed a Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for ombuds that supports and protects the work of an ombuds. The standards include independence, confidentiality, informality, and impartiality.

In the ombuds world when someone speaks with us, that communication is confidential with only two exceptions. One is where the person seeking help wants the ombuds to directly support a situation and is okay with disclosing the ombud’s contact and the ombuds agrees. The second is where there is imminent risk of serious harm (we think of this in terms of physical harm / safety), meaning we have a duty to keep people safe. Because this is a standard of practice, it is included in the Charter or Terms of Reference that serves as an agreement with the organization served. Thus, the organization also supports the confidentiality of communications.

Because of our work, ombuds develop skills and experience at not sharing information. Thus, not only is ombuds work guided by its standards, the work also builds a skillset of keeping information confidential. The other protection for people is that typically an ombuds will not raise an issue if doing so will identify where it came from (unless the person gives such permission).

I wonder whether you find that employees are hesitant to believe in that confidentiality and whether you find you need to do specific work to deliberately gain their trust.

You are absolutely right that an ombuds has to do specific work to gain trust. The Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics are a foundation, a starting point, for anyone coming to the ombuds office. However, they often want to better understand how it might work in practice.

I think all the work of an ombuds is about earning the trust from the person seeking help and it’s an ongoing effort. Trust is necessary for a person to fully share their issue, concern or conflict. The “stuff” that comes to the ombuds office is also often quite emotionally charged and people need trust to be able to share at that level.

Thus, I typically start my meetings by explaining the confidentiality standards and how they work in practice. I also couple this with my experience working in fields that included a “confidentiality” role. I let people know that because of my mediation, legal and ombuds work, I’ve been in many settings where maintaining confidentiality really mattered on a case by case, client by client, visitor by visitor basis and that as a result of this work, I’ve developed skills at not sharing information.

Additionally, throughout my meeting with someone and particularly at the end, I again remind the person of the confidentiality standards and check with them about what they want done, if anything, with the information shared. This step reinforces the ombuds process and empowers the person to make decisions and this also builds / earns trust.

That makes sense. What has surprised you most about doing this work?

Most surprising and also not surprising is how quickly people do trust the ombuds and share deep level feelings and concerns. People want a safe place to share. When I was meeting with people physically in-person (I’m now mostly a virtual office) I kept a box of tissues on my table where I met with visitors. It was not unusual for their use. I haven’t figured out how to provide tissues via zoom!

I’ve occasionally been surprised at how senior leaders, once they understand the ombuds role, will use ombuds services for themselves. Leaders generally think that they are the ones to solve all problems so when they have an issue its often a challenge for them to find confidential help. Thus, the ombuds can be a sounding board for leaders and that use has surprised me a bit.

The impacts of the office are also somewhat surprising. I’ve learned that people using ombuds services make a range of decisions that demonstrate large impacts. I conduct a post-contact survey as part of ombuds services and ask people a paired question. First, what did you think about doing before you came to the ombuds office? And, second, what did you do after coming to the ombuds office? While acknowledging that people are self-reporting, the data is nonetheless quite interesting. A significant number of people disclose that they are no longer planning to leave the university, are not filing a grievance, or are not seeking legal assistance with their situation. These retention considerations as well as grievance and legal avoidance generate both significant financial and emotional savings for all concerned.

What has been most challenging about the work?

When your role is designed to support people and an organization through conflict, you learn about all aspects of the situation and the organization. The good, the bad and the ugly of all. And, while it’s not your role to “solve” the issues directly, you do want to have an impact and over time it does become a challenge to hold a neutral space. The accumulation of “negatives” does weigh on us as ombuds and that’s why self-care is very important. Overall, the big challenge is to move the needle toward a more conflict-competent organization.

{ 118 comments… read them below }

  1. Michelle Smith*

    This is fascinating! I had heard the word ombudsman before but had no idea what an ombuds did. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. DistantAudacity*

      Very interesting on how it has developed, and also word usage!

      Etymology nitpick: an ombud, several ombuds (one ombudsman, several ombudsmen). Source: am Norwegian, and this is one of our few direct contributions to the global pool of words! The “s” is a «joint» in the original, conjoined word and turns into a plural «s» when it got divided back up to be de-gendered.

      We’ve long had Children’s Ombud, and Civil Service Ombud. All employers (above a certain size) are requiered to have a Safety Ombud (verbeombud), who has a formal role on the employee’s side to deal with safety issues in a very broad, protective sense.

        1. DistantAudacity*

          Yes, I saw :)

          When I first saw the headline I admit I thought it was a typo, before I realised it was the natural, international evolution of language :)

    2. londonedit*

      I’m not sure if it’s a regional thing but I’ve never heard of an ombudsman acting in this sort of capacity (if I’m understanding it right, Roy works on behalf of employees at a company/organisation to raise and mediate employee issues and complaints?) The only ombudsmen I’ve heard of here in the UK are bodies that deal with public complaints against areas of the government/large public institutions.

      1. ThatGirl*

        Large public facing institutions that are not necessarily “public” often have them in the US – for instance, the New York Times famously *used* to. They largely dealt with feedback/conflict from the public, but I think using them for interdepartmental conflict is a solid idea too.

      2. Carol the happy elf*

        Autocorrect won’t allow “Ombuds”; I had to turn off that feature. I’m sneaking this in at the top because it kept “fixing” mine, and I didn’t notice.

      3. ND and awkward*

        There are a lot more in the UK than typically get talked about. I work for one of the mandatory ones that gets mentioned on occasion, but there are also voluntary schemes in other industries.

      4. Lizzo*

        Many hospitals in the US have them as well. I have only made use of one as a patient regarding some serious “customer experience” issues, but I imagine they might serve internal staff issues as well.

      5. Emma*

        I’m in the same boat, and it’s interesting how different the two roles are. An ombudsman here is typically an organisation, not a person, and they deal with complaints in more of an adjudication type process – requesting information from complainant and respondent and determining if the complained-of org acted inappropriately and what kind of improvements and/or compensation is due. I had no idea that this type of ombud work also existed – now wondering if it’s a US thing or more international!

  2. Anon for this*

    Very interesting!
    I used to work at a university that divided staff into two tiers, Staff Group A and Staff Group B. The university had an ombuds who could assist faculty and Staff Group A, but not Group B. Then the university hired a new ombuds specifically for students, so really the only group on campus not being served by an ombuds was Staff Group B.
    Before I left that university, I was on the staff advisory board, and we were trying to convince leadership to expand the faculty/staff ombuds’s purview to assist Staff Group B as well. I’m not sure if that effort was successful, but the situation was fairly ridiculous to begin with.

    1. Rhiannon*

      I’m going to take a wild guess that Staff Group B could also be described by a term that rhymes with “dad junks”?

          1. Napkin Thief*

            Nah, faculty + staff group A and then a separate staff group B that gets overlooked in favor of students? I’m thinking the invisible “essential staff” – maintenance, dining, custodial, etc

            1. Very Social*

              My thought as well. The people who keep the place clean and neat and everyone fed… yeah, they deserve ombud support as well!

  3. Wolfpack*

    Go Wolfpack! (I went to State and I used to work there)

    I recently worked with my ombuds at the university I currently work for about a tough situation. The person I talked to was really helpful to me in working through it and giving me an outside neutral perspective. I was so appreciative.

    1. Ms. Wuf*

      Woo! Go Pack! Also a State alum and former employee :-) (Almost) always happy to see NC State being talked about!

  4. Carlie*

    Thank you for this! I ha e been interested in these kinds of positions for a long time. If anyone reading comments knows, I’ve long wondered how one gets mediation training, diplomacy training, that kind of thing.

    1. pancakes*

      I think there’s quite a bit of variety in terms of training available, from day-long or half-day classes to full university programs. There are professional organizations for mediators and they offer training sometimes too. I’ll link to an example in a separate reply.

        1. NotABear*

          Based on my spouse’s experience with the Cornell omsbud ignoring their emails and not being in the office during stated office hours… Maybe stay away? Although obviously it’s completely different, I wouldn’t trust a certificate from an org with a terrible omsbud office.

  5. RMV7430*

    I am genuinely interested in pursuing this. I always wanted to pursue Organizational Psychology (psych major here) and this seems like a good route that also avoids direct intervention from company leadership and allows independent work. If anyone else is in this position and can offer insight I would love to follow up.

  6. Rona Necessity*

    Thanks so much for this interview! I went to a tiny, deeply dysfunctional school and I was constantly looking for this type of guidance and support from someone. I actually ended up informally filling this role for other students, which was very stressful and not something I was at all qualified to do, but without an ombuds, there weren’t really any other options. (A consultant once told me I was the only undergrad he’d ever met who knew what an ombuds is without having ever met one.)
    Anyway, now I’m fascinated by the profession, so I loved reading this.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’m not sure if theirs served this kind of internal role too, though. Maybe they did! But I always thought it was largely to be an independent critic of the paper’s coverage, not for internal staff issues. Does anyone know otherwise?

        Roy noted that a number of towns and cities have ombuds that serve internal constituents. I’ve never heard of examples beyond academia and government but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.

        1. Loulou*

          Yes, that’s my understanding of the public editor role too — the editor was almost advocating on behalf of *readers* and not staff. It doesn’t sound like what’s being described here.

          That said, the NYT newsroom is unionized so I’d imagine the union *does* have people who do something somewhat similar to what the interviewee describes (though of course in a conflict between staff and management they wouldn’t be expected to be impartial)

        2. ThatGirl*

          I think you might be right that they were largely external – I just know that’s the one large private institution I’ve heard of having one.

        3. military kid*

          I’m a military brat and the military has them! My understanding was that they were affiliated with their unit or whatever, but (as described) distinct from the chain of command – especially vital, since the chain of command is so important in the military and people would be concerned that talking about things like senior leadership fraud waste & abuse, sexual assault, or mental health concerns with anyone *in* the chain of command would ultimately hurt their careers. The ombuds were available to families, too, and (at least historically) served as the primary POC during deployments, giving updates on where to send mail, return dates, etc.

          1. DrSalty*

            Interesting, thanks! Makes a lot of sense to have someone in that kind of role in the military.

        4. MaryB*

          We had them at a private law firm, although that was not their only role so I don’t think they had this level of expertise.

        5. IWishIHadAFancyUserName*

          My local hospital has an ombuds office. I’m aware of them mediating between patients/medical staff, but it makes sense that they may do that between staff as well.

        6. Eat My Squirrel*

          My company is a Very Large Defense Contractor You’ve Definitely Heard Of. Our parent company changed several years ago, and I’m not sure if we still have ombudsmen now, but we definitely had them when our parent company was a global manufacturing company with primarily commercial goods rather than defense.
          One time, a coworker confided in me an incident of sexual harassment she had experienced, and she was afraid to report it from fear of retaliation. I encouraged her to contact an ombudsman because we all knew you could remain anonymous through them. She didn’t, but as much would have it, an ombudsman called me a few days later about an unrelated issue, and when we were done discussing that, I filled him in on the coworker’s info. He reached out to her and was able to get the situation worked out, the perpetrator was disciplined, coworker received an apology, and she was thoroughly supported and felt safe through the whole process thanks to the ombudsman. I have nothing but good things to say about that role. Props to anyone who can do it and is good at it!

        7. ChuckDoran*

          Great interview, Alison! Roy is one of the finest ombuddies out there. A few different types of ombuds have been referenced in the interview and comments – classical ombuds (who are sponsored by governments and usually have investigative powers), media ombuds (who respond to newspaper reader concerns about content), and organizational ombuds, who like Roy, serves the constituents of an organization, such as faculty, staff and students. The IOA has an informative set of FAQs that cover these topics – . In addition, the IOA has set up an Outsourced Ombuds Directory ( that provides organizations who are considering setting up an independent, impartial, informal, and confidential resource that is truly external to the organization.

        1. Kellie*

          Oh wait, sorry, that seems not to be for internal matters, though (hence the “public” in “public editor”).

    1. Tired SW*

      Yes! I’m a long term care ombuds (TBH, we’re still called ombudsmen regardless of gender). I’m employed by my county’s government to investigate complaints and rights violations on nursing and assisted living facilities! It’s actually a federal requirement that all states have LTC OMB programs.

      1. Snfrn*

        Yes I was going to comment that! I work in a LTC facility. Thanks for your work to protect residents – it’s got to be tough going into facilities to investigate!!

    2. No name for this*

      Yes, the Smithsonian Institution has an Ombuds office for its museums.

      When I worked at an SI museum, my department and department director were incredibly toxic; and the HR person was thoroughly incompetent. I worked with the Ombudsman (who was a woman) a lot, but in the end I resigned because, as Alison noted, “Ombuds are impartial; rather than taking sides or advocating for particular outcomes, their focus is on ensuring a fair process” which meant that ultimately she couldn’t really help me. She tried, and I think she realized how messed up the situation was and how terribly I was treated, but at the end of the day she really couldn’t affect change.

      1. Disappointed*

        I echo this experience exactly, in a higher ed environment. The Ombuds was very thoughtful and a great listener during multiple meetings, but ultimately had no ability to effect change given the nature of academic roles and how decisions are made in that environment. Even if they were to share the information they had learned from my colleagues and I with higher-ups, it was clear that unless there were specific policy violations or something illegal going on, nothing would change. They encouraged me to go back and work with our HR rep – unfortunately, as a staff person (who shared concerns about faculty management) there wasn’t much they could do either.

        It was a frustrating few years, but when I quit I was truly able to say that I had tried everything* I could, nothing was changing, and I wasn’t willing to put it up with it anymore.

        * This obviously involved lots more conversations at at multiple levels than shared here.

        1. No name for this*

          “Even if they were to share the information they had learned from my colleagues and I with higher-ups, it was clear that unless there were specific policy violations or something illegal going on, nothing would change.”

          Exactly. I know for a fact that one of my co-workers also had multiple conversations with the Ombudsman about the same toxicity issues and nothing changed. The department of 10-12 people I worked in turned over 3 times in as many years, starting shortly after the Dept. Director was hired. The only constants were the Dept. Director and her frenemy, the department’s Deputy Director…but no, they couldn’t possibly be the reason for the nonstop turnover.

          This happened to me over 15 years ago and I still get irritated when I talk about it. (Like now, I can feel myself getting annoyed as I’m typing!)

      2. Pescadero*

        That was largely my experience also (Higher Ed – staff Ombuds)… they listened, and explained the policies… and explained that there was absolutely no mechanism for enforcing policies other than the good will of the department.

        They can point you to resources – if resources exist – but otherwise they’re largely just a sop for people with issues who can really DO absolutely nothing to solve problems.

    3. Combinatorialist*

      I work at a national lab and we have one. According to their website, their role is very much as described here and they sit outside most of the hierarchy. I wish I had known they exist because we were having an issue that we did not successfully resolve that we would have liked to escalate but there was no clear way to do so

    4. jellybean*

      I can’t share the name of the business, but a friend works for a global tech company with locations around the world (not FAANG) and their specific country has an omsbuds in place. Not sure about the other locations. Sorry to be vague!

    5. mlem*

      My 3k-headcount private-corporation employer has two ombuds. (They introduced the role in 2014.) It’s not clear to me whether they have any certifications. Their actual function seems to be to point you to the handbook (in response to your telling them the policy you’re asking about is explicitly not addressed there) or to tell you to talk to your management team (in response to your pointing out that your management team hasn’t been able to give you clarity on a policy-or-lack-thereof). They also seem to have a policy of not responding at all unless you “nudge” at least once. :/

    6. cubone*

      I know someone at a shelter and they have an ombuds to help clients navigate any issues. They said before they had it, if someone was asked to leave the shelter, there was no appeal process. This gives them an avenue for that, basically.

    7. Coenobita*

      I work at a big nonprofit (not in the education sector) and we contract with a third-party ombuds service to address staff issues.

    8. anon for this*

      Yes, I work for an ombuds office in a state government agency that provides long term care services. Though broadly similar, there are a few differences between what we do and what the interviewee above does:

      – We’re focused more narrowly on the rights and wellbeing of the people receiving services; staff grievances/issues are outside our scope.

      – We also have it in our mandate to collect aggregate (anonymized) data and flag systemic issues to the agency and policymakers, and to make recommendations to them about how to improve policy.

    9. Napkin Thief*

      Used to work for a major bank (retail side) that had ombuds – which I first learned about from the posters they had in the break room.

    10. anonanna*

      I used to work for a state real estate org & I think we had a ombudsmen committee comprised of realtors.

    11. Nightengale*

      For what it’s worth, I first heard the term circa 1999 on an episode of the TV show ER. One of the doctors said she was the ombudsperson for the department. I think she mentioned it once in passing and then a few seasons later when she was investigating a sexual harassment allegation. (I am nearly certain she said ombusdperson not ombudsman) And we all know television depicts all workplace things completely accurately. . . I’m a doctor now myself in real life and I have no idea if we have ombudsfolks at the giant health system where I work or not.

    12. Cranky lady*

      After retiring as an RN, my grandmother was a volunteer ombuds for her local nursing home. Also our K-12 district has 2 and they are amazing.

    13. As per Elaine*

      My old job (US-based, medium-small, for-profit company) had some part-time contract ombuds. I talked to one once about a conflict with my department head. She was going to mediate a discussion, but then COVID happened and I wound up leaving that company entirely. I thought she would likely be helpful for the specific conflict, but wasn’t really sure that it would do much for the broader patterns the conflict was part of. Another coworker talked to one of the ombuds about DEI stuff; I don’t recall if any specific action was taken.

    14. The IT Project*

      Yup!! I am in the pharmaceutical industry and our company has one.
      It is a safe place to speak up if you have ethical concerns.
      I utilized them when I was being sexually harassed and it was dealt with rather quickly and the person was removed from the company.

  7. NW Mossy*

    The concept of a “more conflict-competent organization” is one I’m eager to borrow – I can see many applications with the leaders I work with in my organization. It’s a framework that I can see appealing even to leaders whose tendency is to avoid conflict.

  8. Rock Prof*

    My university doesn’t have an ombud! Apparently this was debated a couple years before I came, and it never happened. We had one for students for a few years, but then that person left and they never filled the position again.
    I think it shows, too, in that we have had a revolving door people in HR and in our Title IX role, and it’s been a complicated mess to deal with. At least 5 tenured faculty (myself included) are leaving the campus for a variety of reasons at the end of the semester, and having an actual impartial conflict-trained person could have helped with many of these situations.

    1. Chilipepper Attitude*

      It looks like mine does not have one either! Small, private university. But it is ranked highly as a good place to work.

  9. Anon for this*

    So I work at a very large public university, and after reading this article, I went to see if we have an ombuds. Turns out we do … only for faculty and professional/graduate students. Not staff or students.

    In addition, it seems to be a rotating role with existing faculty members rotating in and out of the two positions. I won’t lie: if I were a faculty member, I would find it very hard to trust the impartiality of an existing faculty member who might be from my own department. It would be even worse if I were a graduate/professional student. Neither of the two ombuds have any training or qualifications in ombuds work listed in their profiles, just teaching awards. The role seems to be in addition to their teaching/research load as well.

    So there seems to be quite the range in the way ombuds are implemented, even across higher ed.

  10. Anne of Green Gables*

    I am at an academic institution (large community college) and we do not have an ombuds; I wish we did. Does anyone know anything about how organizations decide to hire an ombuds?

    1. Greenpeacemaker*

      I work at a private university and they had a panel of ombuds come talk to the leadership and decided having an ombuds was cost effective after hearing that the office can save more $$ than it costs to run.

      Contact the IOA to see what colleges have ombuds In Your area. Most Ombuds value the work and would gladly share their experiences with your leaders as well as help share their leaderships experiences with a campus Ombuds office.

  11. Carol the happy elf*

    I love this! Many years ago, a young woman coworker had an issue with an older male (senior to her, but not chain of command.) He simply would not leave her alone, including filling out transfer paperwork requesting his department, but IN HER NAME. She was stunned and fearful when it was approved, and went to HR to try and straighten it out. HR thought she was ridiculous in rocking the boat, told her he’d be a great mentor, and that insulting him made her look crazy. (Two of us went with her, to lend support and to confirm the reality.)
    Another coworker told her that his complaint to HR had disappeared, and that she needed a signed memo and paperwork for her own records, or they would just deny everything.
    This supervisor was waiting outside one Friday, and pointed out her car with a flat tire. He said he would drive her home, and was furious when she declined. He waited, berating her, while her family member arrived with a jack, to take her tire to a gas station.
    While they were gone, another tire mysteriously went flat, and her glovebox was rifled through.

    Fortunately, earlier that year, the C-Floor had all gone to Ombudsman Orientation, and that office was really gearing up. (It was even located in another building, with the company’s coffee shop, to deflect attention!) There was a small team, led by a licensed social worker, and locked filing cabinet, and a retired police officer to do investigating of safety and harassment complaints. Best of all, they answered to someone outside of (above) HR, and permanent signage was up on the door.
    The harasser was quietly investigated; many women had complained to HR or quit, and he was terminated for gross and egregious cause.
    He sent letters all around, but the tire incident wasn’t new. He did it again; flattened 2 tires on female employees’ cars, and called tow companies to make it worse.
    He did some county jail time for vandalism, and died of a heart attack a few years after I moved away. (The retired police officer kept track of him as a hobby.)
    Once the Office of Ombudsman Services was known, they hired 3 more caseworkers to deal with security, and with medical insurance issues, which were huge.
    LOVE that you (and your big, sharp teeth, and your iron hands) exist!
    Go forth and multiply!

    1. pancakes*

      That is wild. Even more wild, a news anchor recently admitted on air to doing this, and said he did it to the woman who is now his wife! He let all the air out of her tires. Repulsive.

  12. Canadian Public Servant*

    This was very interesting, thank you!!

    Also, I have traditionally been very negative on the value of an ombuds-type service offered by my employer – from this, I may have been looking at this from a perspective of expecting them to do something that is far beyond their role. I am going to give some thought to this issue now.

    1. Carol the happy elf*

      My aunt was in a care facility; she had dementia and could no longer speak or understand English. The Elder Care Ombuds actually found a high school French teacher who assigned students to go visit her as extra credit and to give her more verbal contact. Then a former missionary who spoke Flemish would visit her. Several of them attended her funeral. She recognized them because she had a large photo album with their pictures and names. Her life was made so much better by this. Each state has an Ombudsman office for the elderly; some better than others.

  13. T. James*

    My university has a whole office of ombudspeople but it’s largely useless because management can completely ignore their findings and the office has no authority to enforce its recommendations. There’s not even a requirement that management participate in the office’s investigations, so they rarely do. It exists mainly as a place where frustrated employees can vent and commiserate because it can’t really do anything more than that.

    1. No name for this*

      That was essentially the opinion I walked away with, too, when I used the ombuds office at my former employer. If I worked somewhere with an Ombuds office again, I doubt I would use them — they can’t really *do* anything.

      1. Indubs*

        I used my employer’s ombudsperson office when I was in a tight spot with my boss due to an untreated medical condition. I had a lot of questions about my options with regard to accommodations and how they interacted with disciplinary action, but didn’t want to talk to HR because, well, HR is not on your side or confidential. The ombuds was able to answer most of my questions and helped me come up with an approach for disclosing my condition, and handling some other technical issues related to my still being in probationary status. I didn’t end up needing direct mediation, but I still found the information and strategies I came to through conversation with the ombuds really helpful. I’m sorry to hear not everyone has had the same experience with theirs.

  14. After 33 years ...*

    Thank you for this !
    The comment about reporting to as high a level as possible resonated with me. On the one occasion when I attempted to use our similar service as a faculty member, many years ago, the conversation stopped abruptly when I indicated that my concern was with the action of Person X – the person that the ombuds reported to.

  15. Pam Adams*

    My university had one for several years- they reported to the University President. I often referred students for their assistance. They would reach out to me (an academic advisor) for further information at times or refer students to me who needed advising assistance along with the issue that brought them to the Ombuds.

    Sadly, our Ombuds retired shortly before the pandemic and has not yet been replaced. Worse, their was no announcement and the website was left active, so who knows how many people looked for help and thought they were being ignored.

  16. pretty_pathetic*

    This is so interesting! My only experience with ombuds comes from my niche hobby/part-time job. We have an ombuds committee as part of the national organization, but the ombuds themselves are volunteers with no particular training in mediation. The chair of the committee is elected, but the members are This leads to a lot of issues of trust, because they’re regular people that we have to continue to work alongside (and who sometimes hold positions of authority over us). Having a dedicated person in the role, even if they’re extremely part time, sounds like a much better idea!

    1. CM*

      Yes, ombuds definitely needs to be neutral and that means they should not participate in other parts of the organization. But the person who should be especially aware of that is… the ombudsperson!

  17. Hei Hei, the Chicken from Moana*

    This was so cool – thank you for sharing! It sounds like HR *should be* ombuds too? Or have dedicated ombuds in the structure for those of us outside of academia!

  18. former student*

    really glad to see this post! as an undergrad I was harassed/stalked by a professor who I had thought was a mentor. my university ombudsperson helped me navigate the situation, and I am forever grateful for it.

  19. RedinSC*

    Back when I worked at the university, I reached out to our Ombudswoman (at the time). I had a terrible manager who was really making my life impossible, and I reached out to see what I could do, myself, in learning how to manage this while I looked for a new job.
    The Ombuds gave me some coaching and asked if I wanted to start a formal complaint process. I did not want to start a complaint process, and then she asked me if a process was started (by someone else) would I be willing to speak to that. I said yes.
    Turns out, several of my manager’s staff members were having issues, and a formal complaint (to the title IX officer) was in the process of starting up.
    Her conflict resolution skills, and practice in the process of Non Violent Communications helped me for the month or so I remained working with terrible boss. And shortly after I started my new job, the Title IX officer contacted me, too.
    Terrible was was *I think* asked to leave or be fired. So, that was a good thing.

  20. daffodil*

    So much admiration for people in these roles. I would be very unhappy doing things that were mostly confidential and mostly conflict-related all day.

    1. ND and awkward*

      I mentioned further up that I work at one, though I’m in the tech department so I don’t handle cases. Any time I have to dig into a case for my own role I come away thinking there’s no way I could do what the casehandlers do. Or the team members who handle enquiries, they don’t get nearly enough recognition for what they have to deal with.

    2. Greenpeacemaker*

      I value on a daily basis the fact that others find it very important to come to a confidential office where they can share their experiences/stories and have a listener who is there solely to empower them to consider all realistic options. I get feedback regularly from visitors that is very positive! This is better than any paycheck and after being in the work force as a lawyer, private mediator, social worker for over 30 years and now an Ombuds for the past 15 I can honestly say this is the most rewarding work experience of my career! I spent 2/3 of my career stressed and overwhelmed. I work longer hours now and have no regrets at all, other than I wish I knew about this work 5 decades ago!

  21. CM*

    This is great — I have a similar background and serve as a part-time ombuds in a small organization. I have thought about applying for positions like this in local universities. My main hesitation is the same one discussed in comments by several people above. I don’t want people to confide their concerns in me, and then have absolutely no power to change anything. The larger and more powerful the institution, the more I’d be worried that the ombuds office is used almost as a front — providing people with a place where they can be heard, but in practice is about as useful as writing down their complaint and dumping it into the garbage. My guess is that it depends on who’s in charge and how willing they are to face criticism and consider change. I was thinking the only way to assess this is to talk to people inside the institution and see what their experience has been. If anyone has experience with this, I’d love to hear from you.

  22. University admin*

    This was really great to highlight this important position—thanks for doing so. The ombuds at my university is awesome and has the same scope of what is discussed in this interview. Mediation and conflict resolution are key, as are independence and confidentiality. I understand that a legal background is not necessary but can be helpful. Many times I’ve recommended unit or department-level concerns and grievances to the ombuds office before “escalating” to HRM.

  23. Anita Badrock*

    So glad to see this interview! I am an Ombuds for local government in Chapel Hill, NC and serve both our employees and members of the public. I love what I do and our organization recognizes the value of the work.

    It is both a challenging and rewarding career. One of the most satisfying parts of my work is seeing how effectively people can advocate for themselves, once they are given the right tools and information to do so. Another is helping our leadership consider how processes might be improved to be more fair and equitable to all.

    If you are interested in Ombuds as a career, I highly encourage you to visit the International Ombuds Association and learn more.

    1. it's me! sam!*

      Anita!!! I did not think I would find you here but I was just trying to sum up how great you are in another comment. You rock!!!

      1. Anita Badrock*

        Hi Sam! Thanks! You’re pretty great yourself. Glad you read this blog, I think it is so good!

  24. JelloStapler*

    Hmm, my org could use this instead of some of the top-level admins they are hiring…

  25. academic admin*

    Oh wow! My tiny university just hired our first DEI director who quickly started gathering info. None of us must have had ombuds before because I feel sure it would have come up. But I now have a pathway to make suggestions and I now have this to suggest. Saving it!

  26. fine tipped pen afficionado*

    I’d never heard of ombuds before moving into municipal government but they are the bomb. Our ombuds are the most patient and supportive people that I think exist on this planet. We’ve been in this drawn out battle with some homeowners over land use and I think a whole division would have quit without the ombuds there to mediate.

  27. mdv*

    Last year, I took my last undergraduate class at the university I’ve both studied and worked at for the past 28/24 years respectively. It was the worst experience of my life, with bullying and microaggressions from the white female faculty member to myself, a white female staff member. I ended up going to the ombud about it, and what helped me the most from that interaction was confirmation that what I was experiencing was, in fact, NOT okay.

    I ended up following their advice, which led to a plan to file a formal grievance against the faculty member, which was then undermined when the faculty member changed the grade and lied about the reason and did not tell anyone, not even the chair of the department until after I started down the formal process.

    I’m still pretty angry about the whole thing, but it was made very clear to me that no one was actually going to do anything but tell me “that’s just something you need to learn to deal with” … even though I’m in my late 40s.

  28. triplehiccup*

    FYI for student loan borrowers – ombuds are common in this space as well. The federal Dept of Ed offers them for federal borrowers, and the CFPB has one for private student loan borrowers. Several states and DC offer them as well.

  29. Ursula*

    My employer (large government org) just added an employee ombud, so this really help me understand why they’re another neutral party (we’ve already got 5 others that are supposed to be that: management, HR, alternate dispute resolution unit, investigations unit, and the civil service commission) rather than an employee advocate. At least the fact that part of the ombuds’ job is process fairness helps.

    We really just need an employee advocate, though. On the plus side, the ombud and the newish harassment/discrimination investigation unit actually seem to be helping, judging by the investigation unit’s workload, unlike the 5 or so police accountability orgs we have.

    1. Michael*

      Idk about the dispute resolution, investigations, and civil service commission, but management and HR are usually not neutral..and while advocating for employees is sometimes part of their jobs, they don’t exist to advocate for employees, but to protect and further business aims.

  30. MyOmbudsSupervisedMeAndAllIGotWasSomeLousyTrauma*

    This is all great and a wonderful asset to an organization, unless and until the ombuds also becomes your executive director from hell, who drives several people out of your unit and makes your life a living hell for two years. I always felt it was a strange conflict of interest for this person to hold the ombuds position while also wearing other hats, and turns out I was right. They were still a human being, a flawed and imperfect and biased human being, at the end of it all. Thankfully they were pushed out and my unit survived and I was able to stay (at my dream job where I’d otherwise planned to stay indefinitely, but had been interviewing because of the harm this ombuds/ED caused).

  31. Mary PopTart*

    This is really timely for me! I work for a small college and there is currently a grass-roots movement to institute an Ombuds process. Thank you!

  32. JayemGriffin*

    Ohhhhh, THAT’S what they do! The university where I work has two ombuds for students, but none for staff/faculty, and now I’m wondering if that’s maybe something I should suggest the next time they ask us peons for input :)

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