The Ombudsman is

November is Workplace Fairness Ombuds-month.  Most of you are now aware that Michelle and I have been celebrating the ombudsman through several events and by circulating articles on the topic.

On November 15 we were pleased to be joined at our luncheon by two highly experienced Conflict Resolution professionalsDeborah Sword and Josie Stiles.  Both come with a slightly different perspective and a lively conversation ensued.  Deborah is the former Western conflict manager for the Centre for Values and Ethics at Parks Canada Agency, reporting to and supporting the Parks Canada Ombudsman, and Josie is the recently appointed Ombudsman with Baker Hughes Canada.  Questions came fast and furious.  Here are a few highlights.

Mosaico de Ventanas II - México 2008

The role of the ombudman office reflects the values, ethics and culture of the organization it serves.

What distinguishes the role of the ombudsman?  Both our presenters agreed that one aspect that distinguishes the Ombudsman role from others is that of oversight.  The Ombuds role offers the opportunity to converse with every person within an organization without exception.  Deborah referred to the oversight role as one which entails listening for patterns.  It is important in the Ombuds role to have the authority and the means to take a global snapshot of an organization, track and record trends, and draw conclusions from those trends.

A clearly defined mandate for the Ombudsman is crucial. Neutrality is a foundational principle of all Ombuds practices. This neutrality is reflected in being an advocate for fair process and not taking sides.

In classical Ombuds roles, where the function also includes investigating complaints, Ombuds will draw conclusions and make recommendations. There is a debate in Ombuds’ circles around the appropriateness of the Ombuds office doing investigations, as some people suggest the role slips into ‘taking a stand /side” and defending one’s recommendations, or positions and this may be seen as advocating.

Could you have an ombudsman on a project?  The reference was to multifaceted projects which may be stretched across multiple organizations and through multiple roles.  Certainly there was agreement that having a third party neutral to turn to for the project team could be very valuable. Could this person also serve the role to seek out patterns in the organization?  At Parks Canada in fact, almost all work is on a project basis.  This may not be possible for cross-organizational projects. 

How do you market the ombudsman office? You need to find a balance. There is a role and a place for the ombudsman to attend group gatherings and meetings to introduce the office and its resources. There can also be a mail-out, but it is crucial that direct communication about the ombudsman office needs to come from the top down, from the CEO or equivalent. Only then is there a chance to build trust with employees that the organization is on board to address concerns they raise.

What distinguishes the organizational (corporate) ombudsman from the classical ombuds? Our conversation highlighted the difference between Deborah’s role at Parks Canada and Josie’s at Baker Hughes. As an organizational ombudsman, Josie is bound by these four values: independence, neutrality, informality and confidentiality.  At Parks Canada, Deborah was bound by the values of respect, impartiality, engagement and excellence.  Informality and confidentiality distinguish these two roles.  The Parks Canada Ombuds also is the Sr. Integrity Officer with a mandate to make findings of wrongdoing after thorough investigation of any allegations.

So, where does accountability lie in the organizational context?  Josie described her roles as a complement to health and safety and HR functions which are more compliance oriented and need to be kept distinct. The complementary role may include tasks such as coaching, which empowers staff to take on their own behaviour, and own their own accountability. The informality and confidentiality are crucial for establishing effective and trusting coaching relationships. One goal of coaching is to help staff take accountability for their actions.

Is the ombudsman there to add value to an organization?  Is it possible to assess the ombudsman office using traditional cost-effectiveness metrics?  Deborah provided several examples of tasks she does which are not traditional conflict management tasks; the PCA Ombuds’ role includes functional leadership.  In fact, this gives the Parks’ Ombuds a unique perspective between the role of the Ombudsman and the conflict manager because the two roles exist in the same office and can hand files off to each other in a seamless transition as the situation requires. Does this increase the value of this role?

Some might argue that the Ombudsman, no matter how independent or impartial, is still a pawn of management, and as such a pawn is there to ensure cost-effectiveness.

If the Ombudsman works within an organization to enhance employee retention and engagement, and in so doing mitigates staff turnover, and fosters a more engaged workplace where people are more productive and more innovative then yes, I would say an Ombudsman adds value.

What do you think?

Workplace bullying is prevalent and costly

The following is  guest post from Michelle Phaneuf:

Workplace bullying is prevalent in our workplaces and is a serious issue that costs corporations significantly in lost time and money due to absenteeism, staff turnover, and medical and legal costs. Studies indicate workplace bullying is a result of conflict escalation and instituting a third party Ombudsman office as an informal conflict resolution channel is an ideal way to tackle this issue.

Jorge is working the night shift. Over six months ago he had a conflict with one of his co-workers who insisted that Jorge was taking over his duties. The co-worker involved the manager who decided that the co-worker was mistaken and that he and Jorge were to continue with their present duties.

Because of confidentiality concerns, the manager did not bring this issue forward to Jorge. Since the manager’s decision Jorge began experiencing on-going bullying behaviours by his co-worker and others in the department. They would play demeaning pranks on him throughout the night, call him names and shun him during breaks. Jorge’s manager works during the day and Jorge is reluctant to report the behaviour and decides he will ignore it and it will eventually stop. This is not the case and he begins to dread coming to work, experiences anxiety attacks and his work performance deteriorates. Jorge eventually leaves because he can’t take it anymore, believes he is being weak but saves face by indicating to the organization that he has found another job.

The costs of workplace bullying can be mitigated with an ombudsman

Early intervention through an ombudsman office can address bullying in the workplace and prevent costly escalation.

Studies show that presented with a list of possible triggers of bullying, unresolved conflicts belonged to the top five most indicated causes of bullying (Zapf, 1999). Likewise, departments with many bullying incidents showed an unhealthy work environment with more conflicts as compared to departments with few bullying incidents (Agervold, 2009). Similarly, investigating the relative strength of a broad range of organizational causes of bullying (i.e. job stressors, leadership behaviour and organizational climate), interpersonal conflicts proved to be one of the strongest predictors of being a target of bullying (Hauge et al., 2007). These results align with Ayoko and colleagues (2003) who, by means of a multi-method approach, found that conflict incidents successfully predicted workplace bullying; and with Baillien and De Witte (2009) who observed that bullying among Belgian employees was predicted by a high number of conflicts in the team.

New findings from Baillien, Bollen and De Witte (2011) indicate that organizations can prevent workplace bullying through their reaction to conflicts. Specifically, organizations can establish problem solving behaviours and discourage forcing as a way to solve conflicts. This may, for example, be accomplished by specific training sessions for managers and their employees on how to deal with conflicts and by stressing the importance of addressing conflicts in a collaborative instead of a competitive way.

Above and Beyond Undercover Boss

Recently Calgary Transit Director Doug Morgan appeared on an episode of Undercover Boss Canada with a goal of giving Calgarians a behind-the-scenes look at the work of employees who make his organization tick and, according to Ruth Myles of the Calgary Herald, a chance to hear an uncensored take on the workplace from employees.

Working Statues

All too often in the workplace there is disconnect between the corner office and frontline workers, reinforced by everyday barriers including assistants’ desks, dress codes, and separate floors and buildings. Doug Morgan had to take a pretty extreme measure to vault the barriers at Calgary Transit, donning an uncomfortable dark wig and in his own words “crazy shoes”, but he relished the opportunity to connect on a new level with his staff and is now looking for ways to continue and reinforce that “connection back into the organization.”

You don’t need to get on Undercover Boss Canada and don a crazy uncomfortable disguise to connect with your employees says Michelle Phaneuf, Alberta Co-Director of the Workplace Fairness Institute. Michelle says “owners may be aware that there are issues in the workplace, but employees are often missing that safe environment to provide direct feedback.”

Michelle and her fellow Workplace Fairness co-director, Marjorie Munroe, have developed a process to engage employees for that all important feedback. The Discovery Interview process is the first step in supporting organizations to instill fairness in the workplace. Using skills gained in their extensive mediation experience, Marjorie and Michelle establish a safe environment and gather anonymous and frank data around issues that impact employees. This data is compiled and presented in a report that highlights concerns, often revolving around trust, respect, leadership and transparency. Marjorie Munroe acknowledges that management often has a good idea of what is going on within the organization but adds “nonetheless Discovery Interviews serve two very important purposes: they provide a forum for employees to feel heard an acknowledged, and they send a firm and transparent message that management is concerned about learning the truth.”

Discovery Interviews are only the first step. The second step is often a group conversation facilitated by Michelle and Marjorie to ask: How can the employees work with management to find solutions to enhance their organizational culture? Together, staff and management work on a specific plan to address concerns. Through careful professional facilitation, staff are empowered to contribute to a solution which will meet needs in the workplace they have defined. Because both staff and management define the terms for success, success becomes achievable.

The Workplace Fairness Institute is a Canadian company focused on enhancing organizational culture through collaboration, communication and proactivity in managing conflict.

The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office is a new initiative of the Workplace Fairness Institute which offers ombuds services to small and mid-sized organizations. Trained as ombudsman through the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman and the Osgoode Hall Law School and with backgrounds as Chartered Mediators , Marjorie and Michelle bring abundant experience and ample expertise to the Ombudsman office. The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office will support individuals by working with them to understand and consider options regarding their concerns, answering questions, facilitating communication, and providing information and referral.

The Workplace Fairness Ombudsman Office will provide a service which emphasizes independence, impartiality, fairness and accountability. Additionally the service will help organizations recognize and address systemic issues early.

November is Workplace Fairness Ombuds-month

In November we will celebrate the organizational ombudsman.

You are probably familiar with the ombuds function of municipalities, governments and large organizations, but do you wonder about the benefit and value for a small organization?

If you are you a business owner/manager or Human Resource Professional of a small to mid-sized firm curious to explore ways to attract and engage employees and mitigate risk, we would like to invite you to a reception on November 6 to explore how it can help you.

Wednesday, November 6th

4:30-7:00 pm

Ranchmen’s Club

710 13 Ave SW
 
Refreshments provided

Join like-minded professionals as Marjorie Munroe and Michelle Phaneuf with Workplace Fairness Alberta facilitate a discussion about the foundational principles of the ombuds office: fairness, impartiality, independence, accountability.

You will have an opportunity to:

  • gain insight into how an ombuds function could benefit your organization
  • network with like-minded professionals
  • explore fairness, impartiality, independence and accountability and how your organization currently fosters these values

To RSVP (required) and learn more:

http://www.evite.com/l/M9dwaQsUmE/v?utm_content=title

See you there!

Speaking Truth to Power

The first Osgoode/Forum of Canadian Ombudsman Certificate Essentials for Ombuds program was an incredible experience.  Over five days, from the 27th floor of the North Eaton Centre Tower, my colleague Michelle Phaneuf and I had the pleasure of hearing from a wide range of Canadian influencers and thinkers on the subject of the role of the ombudsman.

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Day 5 concluded with a panel discussion on Speaking Truth to Power.  Facilitated by Johanne Savard, Ombudsman, City of Montreal, panelists shared thoughts on the ethics, the timing, and the foundational concepts of Speaking Truth to Power.

I gained a few takeaways that apply to anyone who finds themselves in a situation of telling what may be an uncomfortable truth to a leader.

1.  Understand, define, and respect and never overstep the limits of your mandate and authority.

2. Be timely and relevant.

3. Provide reasons, and not opinions.

4. Speak through their ethical language.