HR Management & Compliance

Do You Need an Ombuds?

You may have a terrific HR team that’s quick to respond to employee concerns, delivers information to employees efficiently, and understands the humans who work for your company truly are its best resource. But if you’re looking to really uplevel your HR game, you may consider bringing an ombuds on board.

What Is an Ombuds?

The word “ombudsman,” a Scandinavian term meaning “representative,” may be completely new to you. An ombuds, according to the International Ombuds Association, is “an individual who serves as a designated neutral within a specific organization and provides conflict resolution and problem-solving services to members of the organization (internal ombuds) and/or for clients or customers of the organization (external ombuds).”

Basically, an ombuds is a person you bring in to help your organization with a crisis or an issue. This person can speak with employees, create reports, and help upper management understand their company better. Ombuds first began popping up in the 1960s and 1970s but are used more and more frequently in hundreds of organizations worldwide.

Why Would You Need an Ombuds?

You may be wondering why, if your HR team is performing well, you’d need an ombuds. There are multiple reasons a business may be interested in bringing in an ombuds, even with a great HR team.

HR professionals’ role isn’t completely neutral. They fit into the structure of a company and report to a CEO or president. They’re tasked with protecting the organization, and at the end of the day, there are times when an employee’s needs and a company’s needs may conflict in unforeseen ways. There are times when neutrality is needed, and that simply isn’t something you’re typically able to get from an HR department.

HR also doesn’t need to keep total confidentiality. If someone reports a problem to HR, they’re able to bring that problem up to the offending person. At times, that may be the right decision. But at other times, a person may really desire confidentiality. HR teams report to higher-ups; when asked to report what’s going on, they’re required to do so.

The same isn’t true for ombuds, who are able to keep things completely confidential if it’s in the best interest of the employees. Ombuds are able to report issues to management without giving away who made reports, which can help managers focus on bigger, more consistent issues in their organization without getting bogged down by bias and interpersonal conflicts.

These restrictions on an HR professional’s role can lead to conflict in an organization an ombuds can help with. HR teams are focused on crafting policy; an ombuds is more focused on responding to flare-ups when those policies aren’t being carried out properly.

An ombuds and an HR team should work together in a partnership, providing multiple places employees can come to with problems. When ombuds and HR professionals work together, a company can solve problems from multiple angles and tackle small issues before they turn into major problems.

If you have an inner-office conflict that seems small but continues to fester, HR teams may not help solve the problem. Perhaps they want to but aren’t able to see all the perspectives due to their non-neutrality, or perhaps the specific professionals involved aren’t trained on the particular issue at hand.

Either way, if you find your company is dealing with a long-festering issue, an ombuds can make a huge difference.

What Are the Benefits of an Ombuds?

Organizational ombuds come with many benefits. For starters, ombuds can humanize an organization by being a presence outside an official HR team employees can approach. Their commitment to complete neutrality makes them great conflict mediators because employees may have issues with people in their direct line of command that they don’t feel comfortable bringing to HR.

An ombuds can also ease the stress on HR’s shoulders. If your company is in a time of transition and your HR team feels overwhelmed by requests and demands, an ombuds is able to lighten their load. Ombuds have conflict resolution training, as well, leading to fewer inner-office conflicts and more constructive partnerships.

In addition to making reports and helping escalate difficulties to upper management, they’re able to coach employees on things like communication and conflict resolution to prevent problems in the future.

What Are the Different Types of Ombuds?

There are many different types of ombuds, which you can learn more about at the International Ombuds Organization and include classical ombuds, advocate ombuds, hybrid ombuds, executive ombuds, legislative ombuds, and media ombuds.

Each has a different role, but many of their responsibilities overlap. Which is the best fit for your organization will depend on your industry, management structure, and needs.

What Are the Downsides of an Ombuds?

Hiring an ombuds is a cost to your company. Moreover, when you provide too many places for employees to bring up issues, wires can sometimes get crossed and misunderstandings can occur.

You also want to make sure your HR team understands this isn’t someone who’s coming in to compete with them; it’s just a party that’s able to do things HR can’t because of its neutrality and confidentiality.

Lastly, ombuds’ reports and recommendations aren’t binding. Because they aren’t upper management, they aren’t necessarily able to make impactful change. It’s up to the C-suite to decide to listen to the ombuds and implement their recommendations. If they choose not to, having an ombuds quickly becomes a pointless formality instead of a helpful resource.

Is An Ombuds Right For Your Business?

That’s something only you can decide. If you feel your company is consistently dealing with conflict, your employees can’t get on the same page, and nothing your HR department has tried seems to work, it might be worth a shot.

Claire Swinarski is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.

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