Ombudsman… S t r e t c h i n g The Meaning

31 January 2009

It’s been a very busy week.  Ironically I did observe some interesting “beliefs” from multiple individual sources.  For me, I don’t know about you, this means the “Universe” is trying to tell me something.  I paid attention to what everyone wrote and said during the weeks communications;  and then I began to think like “an Ombudsman’s Ombudsman” or what  a “true Ombudsman” would neutrally observe looking at the situation.  A lot came from this and I pulled my resources and research, to “be sure”; and what I’m about to set forth here could “polarize peers” in the profession, no doubt.

We’ve all heard it, “give a hammer to a carpenter and they’ll find something to hammer”.  The American Bar Association (ABA) has been contributing “meaning and definition” to the “ombudsman” word meaning since about 1961 and more recently the association put forth a “resolution” on “dispute resolution” and to embrace the term “ombudsman” as a part of the legal profession.  Like the carpenter, they define the ombudsman practice using “lawyer speak”, which is, in my opinion, NOT an ombudsman.  They classify 3 basic types of ombudsmen complete with definitions: classical ombudsman, organizational ombudsman and advocate ombudsman.  They then move towards “positioning” lawyers to have jurisdiction and final authority over ombudsmen and ombudsman offices with “judicial and administrative” consequences if the ombudsman acts out of “omission or commission” or knowledge of their “clients” acts in relation to the  law.  It’s at this point I began to think about “the truth” versus “truthiness” and the subtle yet “biting” words used in their “resolution”.  It is at this point, of most importance, how many people needing a “voice”, perhaps emotionally upset, seeking trusted assistance  only to discover their ombudsman is an ABA member (bound to professional oath) and silently moves to being in an “administrative discharge” role over their violations.  Now flip the coin again (or other edge of the sword, your choice).  What if the same mediator violates their oath, recognizes their “true” ombudsman role and fails to provide “notice” to their “reporting authority”?  Wow.  It is at this point that literally years of debate could begin, no doubt might,  especially in “blurring of the lines” between legal mediation versus ombudsman mediation; and a true ombudsman’s role outside of judicial and formal administrative channels.  Remember how to use that hammer please.  And what about the original concept of ombudsmanship and the capacity to solve disputes WITHOUT legal formality?  Don’t hit your thumb…

If you can’t tell by now I do not possess a Juris Doctorate.  My background is in corporate, business and organizational development with degrees in business and the social/behavioral sciences.  By my “nature” I’ve even “mediated” relationships since Junior High, doing the right thing and losing that chance with “her” because she came to me, trusted me, “opened up” in confidence with me; and was interested in my best friend, not me.   Many times I’ve played an “ombudsman’s role” during engagements because as a consultant one is never really fully 100% a part of “either side of the table” in a business project and we want to prevent “barriers” from forming by helping seek “middle ground” in negotiations and for the common economic good as an outcome.  Admittedly, it’s just been the last 3 months that I’ve formally declared my ombudsman services as a part of my consulting practice; yet fully aware I now cannot “straddle the fence” and once committed to a role, I must stay that course.

I tend to hold to the founding matriarch’s position of the ombudsman profession, Mary Rowe PhD, that individuals that elect to “trust” and engage an ombudsman will have the same confidentiality as a “patient and physician” relationship.  Her descriptions and discussion over the decades are more like an “organizational psychologist” terminology not an arbitrator saying they are a mediator (look up the meaning for clarity).  We do not take steps to “document” to possibly build a case or conduct investigations subtly advocated by the ABA.  We take a more “informal” approach and method relying on ethics, morals, integrity, honesty, trust and “doing the right thing” with relation to policies, procedures, charters, agreements, memorandums and compliance.  Our methods are to “neutralize” not plan for an eventual “plaintiff and defendant” adjudication.  There is no “due process” only “due care” for an ombudsman.  We don’t speak to “legal charters”, but to “terms of reference” as the guidelines an ombuds office complies with.  We do not speak of “jurisdiction and authority”, but of “informal procedures” to handle an “inquiry” before “legal methods” are needed due to escalations in disputes, conflicts and possibly violence.  And, there is much more, many more “differentiators” here.

One of the “triggering” moments this last week was a discussion with the head of a HR department in a huge energy conglomerate.  They replied back with full “letter head”, the string of acronyms behind their name certifying their professional status  and detailed contact information (phone extension), so I took this as an “invitation” (not a dare) and replied to their reply to my request.  The bottom line from discussion was that they did not need an ombudsman office or ombudsman because internal corporate counsel had an ombudsman program in place for their employees and stakeholders.  This office was located on the same floor as the C-level executives, that’s right, on premises and, I don’t know this as fact, but you probably have to walk through the same door as you would to “serve papers” if in a “polarized” legal relationship with the company.  Contrast this with a university ombudsman office usually located off campus and away from “administrative” offices.   This instantly reminded me of the Inspector Generals Office when I served  in the Air Force, located immediately adjacent to the Base and Wing Commander’s offices, how could anyone “get in” without being noticed?  Are these examples of what an “ombudsman is” today and the structure of the profession; embedded and overlapping functions, no independence yet applying “the word”?

There is a “calling” now (petition) for President Obama to open an Ombudsmans Cabinet and Offices.  This is a good idea.  The Gordian Knot will be the challenge to “our” profession as it is linked to the legal profession and the continuing “bias” of a “nation built on laws” that are used to “keep order” for constituents and are “ignored” by lobbyists, the wealthy and the powerful.  These new laws that are being written are to do “battle” between polarized groups at the moment (federal government versus global free market capitalists), but are ignored by the individuals that are the “bridges” between “cabinet appointments” from the financial power elite free market business sectors and the “regulatory offices” of the Federal Government.  These are the same professionals that open the way for becoming a “leader of the people and their will” and that wrote the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 legislation only to ignore it and let the financial services industry executives consolidate, hold funds to enhance balance sheets and shareholder value.  The same companies that pay 18 billion in bonuses for 2008, snubbing the law by “looping” around the legislated restrictions; and to “retain the talent we need to get us out of this mess” yet they are the same one’s that created the financial products and instruments that made the mess.  The ombudsman profession is needed now, has a noble opportunity as “A VOICE OF REASON”, to remind our representatives they wrote laws that apply to all, not just some of the people; and that more “judicial action” will cost time, waste even more taxpayer money created from thin air by the FED and not resolve the economic disaster we are in.  I see ombudsmen in a position to bring back the virtues our forefather’s gave us in the Bill of Rights and Constitution, so wisely, but our leaders forget day to day.

Now… what will it be?  Let’s all be true to the “word” and “meaning”, altruistic and serve with integrity, “do the right thing” and as we are called upon to be, when asked.  Leave out the legal definitions and “cornering” of  “our” profession by professional legal associations that govern legal practices and move towards a true and independent “virtuous” ombudsman professional practice.


An Ombudsman’s Metrics

27 January 2009

This blog has provided some unique opportunities to “virtually” meet people recently and discuss the profession and exchange bits of knowledge.  Several ongoing discussions have been about the advantages of ADR or Alternative Dispute Resolution and cost metrics with regards to “traditional American style” problem solving.

My “debates”, where I have to “take sides” for a moment, are in fee structure with potential clients.  After over 21 years of corporate, business and organizational development these “formulas” come very easily for me.  First, I look to the “macro” business environment for ad hoc research on costs.  One of millions of examples was a research study  in 1998 where  a US state began benchmarking  and tracking “legal services costs” for millions of “legal services” employees; a tremendous undertaking  if you think about it.  Average cost per employee, per year in 1998 were determined at around $97,333.  10 years later, still tracking, all benchmark categories have held “flat”, with the most increase 10 years later  in the “legal administration” line item.  So, costs in 2008 are up significantly, but they have not publicly published the overall results… they don’t need to, “we” all feel it, do we not?

The best “tip”, for all those asking, who are in the profession, is to get comfortable with your own “value chain” (look it up) for your services based upon the industries you work in.  These are multi-dimensional, constantly “in flux” with todays economy and “ripple outwards” with impact from internal organizational loss of jobs out to the general external community in terms of shareholder and stakeholder economic impact and dozens of “dimensions” in between.  I can add layers with ease, valid and reasonable “assumptions” to make “my side” of the debate on fees with a client… impartial and fair.  For years though, I’ve worked on the “cost” plus “value add” basis simply stating that my fees are very resonable if you project out the “value add” you’ll receive on a “real cost” basis.

If you doubt this, don’t.  The best example I can relate to you is that I teach this model in class, more detailed of course, and “feedback” from one student at the end of the quarter was that his company landed a multi-million dollar contract with the government of Mexico after they improved the  “added value” they’d not considered before.

Hope this helps…

The Chronic Complainer

25 January 2009

I recently took a phone call from a prospective client.  The immediate topic of discussion wasn’t about “chronic complainers”, it was singular, about a “chronic complainer” that he wanted to discuss.  As the conversation unfolded it was clear he had, once again, had a “heat of the moment” encounter.  Realizing, on my part, not much gets accomplished in such moments, I instead began to “practice what I preach” and listened fully to his complaining about a complainer.  It also became obvious to me that he himself was going to follow the same “dysfunctional pattern” of “asymmetrical communication” that enables the constant cycling of “emotional stuff” over and over.  Finally, I asked him, inserting myself just a bit assertively, “can I give you some tips?”.  “That’s what I called for!”, he affirmed.

o     Listen to the complainer with awareness.

o     If you hear a “rational point”, affirm it and paraphrase it verbally back to them.

o     Move towards getting the complainer to write a formal complaint.

o     Once you have the written complaint analyze it and develop a solution.

o     Contact the complainer and collaborate with “concession points”.

o     Document it, have them sign off on it, with words like “I’m glad we are finally closing this out”.

o     “Give it to them.”  The rational points and concessions from the process.

This is an asymmetrical approach for “simple issues” and informal circumstances.  Yes, I agree, it does not take into consideration “both sides” of a most likely  one-sided issue and may even disregard published policy and procedure of an organization or company.  Many times “complainers” simply like to be “verbal” and not “write” their words down and the “resolution process” breaks down.  It can though, help a “chronic complainer” personality to move on and the receiver of the complaint to provide resolution; and make changes if needed. If it’s beyond this, the situation persists and you feel “stalked” after the attempt, consider professional intervention.

3 Keys to Communication

23 January 2009

On any given day we are on the phone, in face to face meetings and writing important one-off chance messages.   Everyone is working towards personal or group objectives to fulfill and achieve goals.  Things can get emotional, chaotic and stressful, especially the way the economy and other developments unfold for everybody in today’s world.  For me, it’s no different and when it gets intense or an important moment of communication is about to arrive, I whisper to myself 3 key things.

  • “Speak Short / Write Short” – the receiver of your communication will fade and lose attention after the third or fourth spoken  sentence.  Introduce the “message” in the first sentence, get to the point in the 2nd and 3rd; and get “confirmation” in the 4th sentence by looking at them eye to eye, asking a question or moving into action to confirm.  Have reciprocity and interest.  If it’s in writing, e-mails of over 250 words will also lose the attention of the reader.  E-mail is for 24-48 hour communication cycles.
  • “Tact & Diplomacy” – no matter who you talk with, write to, have reciprocal communication with, it is always better to be calm, even and think before you communicate.  How you handle yourself can create conflict and yield unintended conflict, cause other sidetracking issues and results.  Think of yourself as a tactful diplomat at the beginning of all relationships, especially for business, and maintain that “aura”.   Remind yourself during the course of communicating if you can.
  • “Happy Smiling Voices” – When I speak I want to set the tone and mood and “invite” that same feeling in the person I’m interested in talking with.  Smile, be respectful, be warm, be courteous, be happy and communicate “parity” with the other person; even if it’s guy to guy.  We are all human beings regardless of role or status, homeless or Chairman of the Board.

Practice these 3 keys, say them before a meeting, think of them while writing and you’ll dispense with conflict and possibly “polarizing” the relationship in the precious moment it begins.

Before You Lose Your Job

21 January 2009

In today’s economy our position in life is uncertain, fearful and even chaotic.  Even “the best” people, or so we are told, are losing their jobs.  As an Ombudsman it’s not up to me to make judgments about an issue, but rather to “mediate” on behalf of both sides after ALL of the information has been gathered, organized and reviewed by a team of at least 2 members.

I have seen situations that persisted for years and the employer made “concessions” to keep the employee contributing, but at the same time suffering loss or damages in other areas.  The employer would say they have “considered” the “burden rate” versus what the employee actually earned for the company and it stayed favorable.  In other circumstances though, that little edge or “differentiation” that kept them employed erodes and looses leverage over time and in a variety of ways.

In this case, the employee can contact an Organizational Ombudsman and ask for “a second chance” in hope of a reprieve.  In this scenario, who pays for the service needs sorted out because most often the employer will contract us, but in the above circumstance they may not.  Our job is to simply first get communication started, initial conversations to see if both sides are “open” to reconsidering what is “immanent”.  If this is possible and confirmed verbally, by say HR, the immediate “manager” and the employee, we get “permission” to move forward.

In this circumstance statistics are from the 90’s era, but more than half the time an OO is successful in resolving the issue.

Be careful out there if you think economic circumstances could “force” an employer to let go of “lesser” people than those top performers with millions in “parachutes” and severance packages.

It’s a good day…

20 January 2009

For whomever may see this, it’s a good day for a variety of reasons.  First, I’ve wanted to “open” this blog for months now and finally things seem to be coming into place, which makes doing this more practical and feasible, finally.  More to come on this “spin off” of my other endeavors, but for now… this is it.

Next, why not start this on President Obama’s swearing in?  Forever; I’ll be able to say that he and I both started something significant and new in hopes of helping people everywhere; and I like that idea.

Future posts will be exclusively “topical” around my experiences as an Ombudsman, in hopes of providing some insight and educating readings on the value of the service and at the same time holding to the ethics and practices of the profession.  I hope this is not too frowned upon by “peers”.  Cheers… OO