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Organizational Disputes: The Ombuds

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Conflict Resolution Institute

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Ombuds from left to right: Mary Rudolph Chavez (University of Colorado-Denver), Jenna Brown (University of Denver, and Rebecca Updike (Office of Colorado's Child Protection)Perhaps you have heard of an Ombudsman, but did not know who they are, or what they do. On October 25th, the University of Denver's Conflict Resolution Institute hosted a panel of distinguished Ombuds to educate on their role. From various institutions throughout Colorado, the Ombuds discussed issues of conflict resolution, justice, advocacy, systems reform, and change-management in large agencies and organizations.

The three panelists Jenna Brown (University of Denver), Mary Rudolph Chavez (University of Colorado- Denver), and Rebecca Updike (Office of Colorado's Child Protection Ombudsman) discussed and shared what the title of Ombudsman means and what people in their positions typically do. As the Ombudsman at the University of Denver, Jenna Brown, works closely with domestic and international colleagues to ensure that the University's Ombuds Office complies with on-going professional ethics and standards of practice. Mary Rudolph Chavez is the Ombudsman at the University of Colorado at Denver and has, for the past six years, specialized in organizational conflict and collaboration working as an internal consultant to assist and coach constituents. In 2011, Rebecca Updike was named Colorado's first Child Protection Ombudsman and has recently been elected to Chair the Children and Families Committee for the US Ombudsman Association.

The panel event got off to a great start with humor. Jenna Brown asked the audience, "What do you call a room-full of happy Ombudsmen?" Brown then replied, "Cheeri-O-s!" The panelists first explained the early history and definitions of the word: Ombudsman. With roots in Scandinavia, and derived from an Old Norse word for "representative", the idea of an impartial intermediary was instituted in Sweden in the 19th century, but since then, has spread internationally. Today, there is now at least one O-person in every nation in various agencies, capacities, and levels.

There are Classical and Organizational Ombudsmen; the latter are more prevalent in the United States, whereas globally, Classical Ombudsmen are more common in Canada, Asia, Europe, etc. Often appointed, Classical Os view themselves as more of a "watchdog" unit, with the intention of being completely autonomous and uninfluenced from the government agency in which it is to intercede. The main objective of the Classical O is to field complaints from outside of the governing agency in which it is appointed, and to substantiate any of the complaints. Most often Classical Os then publish a formal, public report with recommendations for change for that agency. The Classical O in most countries does not have the power to initiate legal proceedings on the grounds of the grievance.

Organizational Os take a more alternative dispute resolution attitude toward matters within private companies, non-profit organizations, academic institutions and government agencies. The Organizational O works as a designated neutral party who specifically works on the behalf of the organization's employees, managers, and any other internal constituents. Reporting directly to the executive-level leadership, the structure that the Organizational O operates allows whistleblowers (managers, employees, and other internal constituents) with ethical concerns access to the appropriate support for addressing their concerns. Often the support offered by an Organizational O comes in the form of mediation, conflict coaching, tracking of the issue at hand, and providing recommendations to the executive officer for orderly systemic change.

Ombudsmen have the unique role in understanding organizational trends by way of keeping the pulse of the "grievances" or conflicts that they become privy to through their work. Organizational Os usually inform executive-level leadership of the trends they are experiencing, as such, this role plays a major role in systems-reform and change management. Different from the Organizational O, Classical Os can conduct investigations into recurring matters of interest that have been brought to the attention of Os by "Visitors".

Visitors can anonymously report a problem to the Office of the Ombuds; this organizational structure should allow the visitor to do so without fear of retribution. To promote transparency, social justice, and systems change the need for an Ombudsman's office in large organizations and agencies is critical because the fear of retribution is real among many of these stakeholders. Brown, the University of Denver's Ombud, explained to the audience that she perceived her role to be an "Advocate for Access" for any of the visitors that come through her office. An Organizational Ombud, Brown views herself a conduit to the appropriate people and channels for visitors to be heard and to be connected to the resources that they need to resolve their conflicts. Updike, considered a Classical Ombud, shared experiences in her work for Colorado's Office of Child Protection Ombudsman where individuals, families, and even non-governmental organizations have come to her office for help because they had nowhere else to go due to politics with the established agencies in power.

The panel discussion with the Ombuds was so engaging and interesting that the session went over its time limit. The Conflict Resolution Institute at the University of Denver hopes that the discussion informed current students about potential roles and career opportunities within the wide field of conflict resolution.

-- Charlotte Prewitt