Words: Stop and Define What You Mean

25 February 2009

More and more the “meaning’ of words in our ombudsman profession are changing.  They are influenced by popular media and conflicted by generational shifts in how we use words to “say what we mean”.  I personally have always emphasized just how important it is to stop and define a word if needed, to communicate clearly and more and more this is a problem for ombudsmen, mediators, arbitrators, litigators, negotiators and leaders.

Have you noticed lately the “spin” on words in the media?  How can it be that Ben Bernake can sit before a congressional committee and bite his tongue on the “N” word anymore?  He won’t say it!  Last year I sent a mass e-mail out telling everyone to prepare for “socialism of our corporate and financial institutions” or the “N” word, nationalization.  I got negative feedback for even saying such “blasphemy”, but it was the reality and it is the reality now, today.  We are a hybrid social-ocracy now with democratic processes.  More trends are coming as “free market capitalism” as we know it will never come back again.  What words are coming now to describe what we are becoming as a country and society?  I can’t tell you, the reader, how important it is to call a duck a duck if it waddles, quakes, has feathers and a beak.  It may not be the species you “think of as a duck”, but it is, there are many hybrid species and many expanding meanings to words nowadays.  So if you can’t say “duck” say what you mean when linking words in communications.

Things are “waking up” in our profession regarding the words we use to convey what we mean.  This is a subtle yet constant theme in our communications.  The word “conflict” by example is a difficult word to carry in the title of your function, your practice or office in terms of “what you do” as a service to other human beings.  Why?  Conflict has become the preferred word to describe genocide and war.  The media does this to make the news easier to hear and watch, but they should just stick with the high impact words to fit the meaning of the “reality” they show us in video and photos on the news.  Shouldn’t they?  For us, it’s wise to stop and define “conflict” for anyone we are engaged with.  Good can come from conventional low impact conflict between individuals, groups and communities if ombuds are there to help keep perspective.  The same holds true for “dispute”, which has a “lesser impact” than conflict in terms of connotation.  Still, how many times have we heard “border dispute” to describe gun shots between two countries at a state demarcation?  Last summer the conflict between Russia and Georgia was “de-escalated” by the media into a dispute as time passed.  Was that a conflict or dispute?   Define your words in every presentation and statement, especially given consideration of your audience who will reject you and every attempt to guide them if you can’t get through on the parity of meaning in the words used by our profession.

Of equal or more concern are the acronyms we use such as ADR or Alternative Dispute Resolution.  In context of my discussion with people ADR means an alternative to legal arbitration and litigation yet lawyers continue to embrace a parallel meaning for ADR that in reality is more in line with “forced” decisions and outcomes and these include the word mediation if an attorney is using the word.  The defining factor is if the facilitator determines the outcome and it’s even more so if “awards” are “ordered” as an end result.  Make sure the person you are in service to knows the difference and let them choose the type of process and outcome they desire.

If you haven’t noticed, new words are made each day in our society, some catch on, some don’t and die out.  I’ve already had one discussion in this blog regarding such an event that trapped me into an issue of using “new Internet lexicon” or holding to the traditional dictionary declaration of the word being “valid” or not.  For the ombudsman profession and all “overlapping” and linked practices there must begin to be a clear and defined differentiation of our practice and it must be communicated or else we are not being fair, clear and ethical in our practice.

Then again, none of the above really matters at all IF you stop and define what you mean.


Washington Post Ombudsman

23 February 2009

Andrew Alexander just became the new Ombudsman for the Washington Post.  You can read the article here.  He gives a slightly insightful accounting of his new role, though it’s doubtful that his “office” is truly independent, at least from my experience with his paper.  I do read articles as they come to my attention from the Washington Post and just like Andrew’s predecessor, I doubt he will have the influence needed to actually get “corrections” published, if not more serious changes that come to his attention, such as serious facts that are outside of personal perspective.  It would have been good to read his column with reference to actually investigating accuracy in reporting and other media industry standards; and how he’ll uphold the integrity of his profession above his loyalty as an “inside” ombudsman.  Clearly, if it gets too hot for him, he’ll “contract” and when it cools down, he’ll “expand”, it’s a cycle I’ve observed.  I think, today, if a newspaper is able to “trade” on integrity and demonstrate it… then their reputation will better keep their presses running.

As an example, I don’t often get the chance to do this, but here is the “contrast” with “linkage” to Andrew’s self introduction article as referenced in the above paragraph.  It’s from Discover Magazine Science Blog, you can read it here.  It takes on the lack of or poor fact checking the WP has a reputation for, but in reality it’s about what it’s always been about, ideological perspective that readers by the thousands have difficulty with.  Why have an ombudsman in such circumstances?  It’s not like National Public Radio anyway… where accountability for tax payer supported media is important and therefore should meet standards.  What do you think?

OO’s First Month: Updates, Recap & Trends

20 February 2009

It’s just been 30 quick days that Organizational Ombudsman has been on the Web.  Given the support and “reciprocity” of readers, mostly from the ombuds community, I’d like to point out some discoveries, future trends and changes to better access the OO blog.

OO traffic and views are linked to 3 main “trackbacks” prior to adding FeedBurner syndication services.  These sites are listed in the Blogroll:

  • Tom K at Ombuds Blog
  • Diane L at Mediation Channel & World Directory ADR
  • Google Search Engine & Google Blog Search

I’ve been asked to provide more subscription options and the Standard RSS Feed Icon for most of the over 200 news readers on the web is available.  You can also go to the Blogroll and select OO FeedBurner Syndication and choose a specific news reader service there.  You can also subscribe, as of yesterday, by FeedBurner e-mail subscription, just click on the link in the top of the right sidebar.

The petition to President Obama is still circulating and can be found in the OO Blogroll, please “digitally sign” and e-mail out for more support.

My web support tools tell me one of the most popular searches on the web regarding key words “Organizational Ombudsman” has been the phrase, “How to become an organizational ombudsman”.  This phrase tells “us” in the profession that the downturn in the economy is driving people to seek other expansions, extensions or alternatives to their current profession or career.  I would say this is very true of the legal profession at this moment.  Indeed, my OO services are an extension of my corporate, business and organizational practice where I often negotiated and mediated “issues” inside running projects to get them completed.  This key word search phrase also says that existing business and corporate functions are seeking ombudsman solutions.  My prediction is that America and the World is “fed up” with unethical practices and wants ethical, honest and trusted relationships and “we” can help provide this.  After conversation this week with one “associate”, the problem for all of us remains the huge “gap” between desire for wanting ethical practice and actually taking action.  One example is executives that need to acknowledge the need and move from “denial and dysfunction” towards healing their organizations.  Within the last year there are “indicators” that employees in large companies are experiencing “morale issues” over the economy, their jobs and management practices.  “Resistance” to such change slows efforts and it takes persistence unless some chaotic event triggers immediate change.  Add to this, my recent experience, is that as I’ve talked with potential clients and educated them to what ombudsmen do; I later return for follow through and discover their web site content has changed to include language about how they are now ‘ethical practitioners’ and assist their stakeholders themselves with conflicts and disputes.  There was a day I’d be “upset” about this, but if it helps to provide awareness and they move towards actually improving ethics with the resources “we” have for them… then this is good.  They will discover though that you can’t be part of the conflict, be one of the ‘sides’, and mediate your own conflicts ethically.

I can’t post my full analysis of the profession and future trends here, but the opportunities are in the most “conflicted” areas of government (classical ombudsman) and business for organizational ombudsmen including but not limited to: corporate governance, corporate sustainability, corporate social responsibility, EH&S, whistleblower functions, ethical leadership training, executive ethics coaching, HR conflict management and what I call “ombudsmanship roles”.  I also detect, have no evidence yet, that “community ombudsman” models could be an early “emerging market” for ombuds services working from an “outside and penetrating in” model.  This means scenarios like contracting with individuals, groups, non-profits, public community organizations and then taking the “issue” to local government or agencies for mediation.  Why?  Bureaucracies are “embedded” with conflicted “interests” and processes and are typically very slow to evolve.  By example, homeowners who are still working, but upside down in their mortgages could engage a community ombudsman to collaborate and lead towards a solution to preserving the banks interest and the owners assets.  If you have the “courage” to get in and “surface issues” there is plenty of work in our field.  Other trends may be religious or non-secular assistance for negotiation, issue, problems, complaints, mediation and ombudsmanship roles where “groups” suffer the impact of government “short falls” in the future.  As economic contraction persists over the coming years, social models tell us communities and groups “organize” to restructure, become functioning and strengthen their local economy.  For my own self, linking back into my own 22 year career, discussions are about “ombudsmanship principles” as part of a “role” in a project with a client.  They are saying they like the “ethical quality” and want it back and want me to “preempt” problems that cost them money, time and other resources from the past.  This is a form of “risk mitigation”.  It’s also a new “social network” strategy called “leading from the middle”, which is where “we” are positioned in our profession.

Other emerging trends will come from the best ombudsman infrastructure there is, the university system in America.  Why?  Many business models are “technology transfer” models from seed programs in universities and they naturally spread out into the community.  The US is the largest “educator” and can “leverage” internal ombuds office or program “know how” into the private sector by starting a practice, groups join in a practice or take “dual hat” roles in organizations needing ombudsman ‘ethical’ approaches as a now recognized “harmonizing” business function.  Again, Laura Lonsdale with Tyco International is the best example of the potential of corporate ombudsman success.

Another major trend is to provide a “network” of ombuds professionals.  I’ve added 5 “associates” in a loose “alliance”  since the start of the year.  This capability is linked to another trend and that is WEB 2.0 technical skills in working collaboratively over the Internet.  This technical function also enables “auditing” of ombudsman performance and “ethics quality”.  Everyone should also move to be able to reach rural America on the web and bring teams together for cases.  My OO practice standards and promotions state that I am required to have at least one other ombudsman review the case with me.  The classical ombuds model for states has 3 member teams with a mandatory legal counsel on the team.  What about yours?

Finally, the association and term “conflict resolution” is getting the most web search engine recognition outside of ombudsman terminology as the public perception is that ombudsmen are not universal, but proprietary functions associated only with universities and government mostly.  This was also confirmed by an associate this last week.  Conflict resolution and ADR seemingly go hand in hand where arbitration by the legal profession is the method for solving issues when public perception is considered.  One of the goals of this blog is to “differentiate” and possibly change that perception. The third most key word searched phrase is “financial ombudsman”, which has been the topic of my most recent posts and is driven by current B2C issues that consumers read, watch and listen to in the media… so there is a shift happening now.

Again, thanks to all for your support and assistance my first 30 days.  I hope the insight provided here makes a difference for all of us in 2009.  Please add your comments regarding this post and your analysis of trends.

The Chinese Finger Puzzle: A Metaphor for Ombuds

16 February 2009

chinese_finger_trapWhen I was a young boy I had my first experience with a Chinese Finger Puzzle or Chinese Finger Trap as some people call it.  You too may have had a frustrating experience with this deceptive “toy”.  My experience, as best I can recall, was when my uncle gave one to me for my birthday.  He presented this colorful woven tube to me and said, “go ahead, put your finger in it”.  I hesitated and know now there was a smile of intrigue on my face at the time.  Trusting my uncle, as children all instinctively trust adults around them, I went ahead and put my finger deep into the puzzle; not like in the photo above where she is less than “half way committed” and only to the first joint of her finger.  I inserted my whole finger all the way to the third joint where the finger meets the hand.  To make a long story short I spent a significant amount of time trying to wrestle the trap off my finger.  The other end was open, no one put their finger in with mine and I at least had sense not to put a finger from my other hand into the hole on the other side of the puzzle.  The adults “left me that way” for some time, though it seemed like forever, most likely it was just minutes, but I wondered why they were doing this with me.  Indeed, an ombudsman may get a visit from people who wonder what others intentions are with them, but in much more serious “realities” .

As ombuds we are sometimes sought after to resolve situations that people unwittingly find themselves inextricably involved in.  These situations vary widely in the types and forms of relationships, but it’s always ‘polarized’ and the complainant didn’t understand what was really happening until it was too late.  Often I’ve heard descriptions from people who became a ‘polarity’ in a situation, not by choice, but simply because someone else CREATED AN ISSUE with them for reasons unknown.  In such situations, once they recognize they are “part of the conflict” by someones “declaration”, it’s of no use to just declare their innocence, they have no choice anymore but to work it through.   The Chinese Finger Puzzle in this case can be a serious accusation in life nowadays.  Situations such as accusations of sexual assault, date rape, child abuse, physical abuse or bullying, verbal assaults and other very “stigmatizing” scenarios.  Ombuds have to be very cautious in such circumstances, follow procedure and not be too quick to discount their “visitors” claim to innocence.  It may be wise to bring in the “team” in your office or colleagues in your function to keep perspective, investigate and collect facts.  There are, more and more, individuals out there who know how to “manipulate the system” and use the law to harass, take revenge or “strike the first blow” in a dispute without resorting to physical violence.  This is where the legal system is used in open warfare and once a police report is filed the “puzzle is a trap” and one needs help to resolve it.

I didn’t know how to get that Chinese Finger Puzzle off of me.  The adults around me had “fun” with me that day, I wasn’t really harmed in any way, but I was distressed the whole time wondering, trying different things and picking and pulling at the puzzle.  The solution came from someone who had previous experience with the puzzle because my uncle had tried it on her first, my aunt.  She invited me over to her, took the “toy” and forced it deeper onto my finger and I yelled, “no, don’t put it on me more” or something like this.  She calmed me, told me to watch, and the toy opened up as she pressed it forward towards my hand.  She then “pinched” the tube so has to hold it firm, not let it relax, and then said, “now slowly pull and twist your finger out”.  She explained that if she were to try to pull it off my finger, it wouldn’t come off, all she could do is hold it still and keep it open until I freed myself.

As ethical and courageous ombuds we may well have to be or have already had to act in a similar fashion for our complainants.  Keep communication open, promote mutual support, be in it with them for the long haul in such serious situations and bring the team together to sustain the process.  As the investigation proceeds and facts bear out the truth, provide counseling so as to assist with the learning process and how to possibly avoid similar “traps” in the future.  If their “innocence” is established, they may need us to support and guide them out of the puzzle, clear their name, regain their innocence from false claims and restore what they can of their life.  Given their permission, we should not hesitate to formulate a written statement of findings to help with the aftermath of the situation.  If the whole ombudsman office team is involved, pretty soon everyone becomes an expert Chinese Finger Puzzle resolver.

Standard & Poors New Organizational Ombudsman

12 February 2009

This is the first attempt in the financial services industry to use an Ombudsman to act as a mediator on behalf of the holding entity and with financial information consumers, corporate entity employees and financial industry member companies.

McGraw-Hill Companies holds a broad variety of business publications including Standard & Poors, the securities credit ratings unit.  The S&P President and CEO Deven Sharma “admitted failures”, expressed a variety of lessons that had been learned; and committed to independent and transparent Credit Ratings and to moving quickly to make changes and develop new “valuation methods and procedures”.  Mr. Sharma made that commitment 22 October 2008.

As a result several, other press releases came down and the key word that “we” are all familiar with was always present.  That word was and is, “independent”.  Yes, you guessed right, former Ernst & Young CEO Ray Groves was appointed Ombudsman by the McGraw-Hill Board of Directors and he goes to work 16 February 2009, just a few days from now.  He reports to both the CEO of S&P and Audit Committee of McGraw-Hill, a typical structure for “independent directors and advisers” to be in and one that works.  I do think this can work.  Why?  Consultants do get “close” to their clients, but from my own experience engagements stay at “arms length” a majority of the time.  Even more to the point this is a very innovative step that says “big business” is listening and observing trends, is responding; and now knows what has to happen. In this case, McGraw-Hill has moved in the right direction using the first Ombudsman to rectify “trust and integrity” issues.  Will it work?  I believe so, yes.  There will be the recognition during engagements with ALL “clients” that S&P provides ratings to, that they are “safe” from legal prosecution and free to “talk confidentially” with Ombudsman Groves who can recommend changes and finally “fix” a key dysfunctional element of the financial services industry that “went along” and perpetuated the problem.  If outright self dealing, fraud, embezzlement, insider trading, ponzi scams have been committed, Groves can move those towards “justice”.  As an Ombudsman, Groves is suppose to handle “conflicts of interest” at all levels and field complaints from S&P employees, most likely in relation to “pressures” on them from powerful clients who want to skew reports, ratings and information, which “skews” market trading.  This is significant because of the historical “go along to get along” relationship that ratings units have with the companies they rate. More importantly, if Groves can restore “integrity” and truly be independent in establishing a new ratings methodology; and publish poor ratings if warranted, he will be successful in restoring regulator, investor and legislator confidence in the industry.

My advice would be that while “integration” of systems is efficient and improves access to information and reduces time cycles, objectivity MUST also be a core principle in the new method so that “favors” and “tips” cannot influence ratings or any form of “quasi-insider relationship”.  Ratings units CANNOT anymore be the contracted  “risk mitigation” functions in a supply chain structure with the  financial institutions they obtain information from.  This IS conflict of interest.  Such relationships have proven to be “self dealing” and “inherently subjective” ignoring fundamental economics laws.  The key to solving this is to always keep your mission statement in mind and that is “who do we serve” and do it by implementing a new physical operating structure with objectivity and integrity in analysis and decision processes.  If necessary, new unit charters and committee oversight at the board level may be a good idea too.

This is the first instance of an Organizational Ombudsman approach in any segment of the financial services industry that I’ve seen, it’s “well positioned” to make the appropriate impact.  I hope this leads to more Ombudsmen appointments and a good industry model for others to follow.

Corporate Ombudsman Laura Lonsdale

10 February 2009

My focus recently in this blog has been on the independence and role of the ombudsman in contemporary society; or should I more appropriately say, “could be”.  The examples I’ve focused on recently are the most greedy and corrupt activities of “free market capitalism” (unregulated and lax) that span decades here in the US and abroad.  They are and will continue to damage our economy, our culture and communities till about 2012 in my opinion and we won’t fully recover for a full “generation”, especially financially.  These “stains” mostly fall into all areas of government, corporate governance and the broader financial services (banking, securities, student loans  and mortgage lending) including the government regulators.

To contrast this and point out some very positive situations, there are a few bright and gleaming examples of the ombudsman profession that we all should be thankful for and model our own selves after.  For me it’s Laura Lonsdale, who came up through the ranks in Tyco International starting out as a Manager of Corporate Governance and is now Ombudsman since 2007.  This is a prime example of how a company gone very bad can turn-around and regain its virtue once again.  No, she didn’t act single handedly, but she embodies what an Ombudsperson can do in Corporate Governance.  Laura’s office handles about 1,100 employees globally in addition to shareholders and stakeholders; and she’s been instrumental in cleaning up Tyco since the Dennis Kozlowski era of fraud and self dealing.  Of interest to me is she reports directly to the Tyco Audit Committee at the Board level and skips the CEO chain of command, which would be the typical structure and thus provides greater independence and confidentiality for Tyco “whistleblowers”.  She is not a member of the ABA though she holds a Juris Doctorate and therefore demonstrates the true independence from the professional legal association and related conflicts of interest.  She is the only ombudsman selected in 2008 by Directorship Board Intelligence Magazine and made their Directorship Top 100 in Corporate Governance.  Scroll down and check Laura Lonsdale’s biography here.  I hope you are as inspired as I am.

Financial Services Ombudsman – We Want More!

7 February 2009

Wow, OO has struck a nerve.  Just a few days back I was “worried” about possibly “polarizing” the ombudsman profession  and now there’s  a pouring in of responses to the UK FSO post from yesterday.  I’m still going to point out the contrast of how other countries handle “complaints” and the US method where “legal due process” is “the only way” currently.  We need independent, fair, neutral, trustworthy ombuds offices nationwide, perhaps regional offices; and we must “learn from mistakes” from the past once and for all.  This is needed because “government” and “Corporate America” continue to have Enron and WorldCOM “integrity” issues that persist evidently.  Remember, Enron’s issues “peaked” in 2001, but the legacy of poor accountability goes back to 1996 or even earlier.  While the US government currently struggles to develop a financial model to solve the “economic crisis” we should move towards “catching up” by adopting the European Ombudsman business models here in the USA.  For all of you that had great contributions and links, it’s better we put it here than in comments.

From Switzerland’s Banking Ombudsman

Canada Financial Services Ombudsman Complaints “Slightly Up”

Ombudsman Banking Services & Investments (OBSI) News

Not all “comments” are posted, links most relevant to the topic are here and in keeping with ethical practices no links are posted that name financial institutions and complaint specifics.  The main “thrust” here is for the US to catch up, establish offices and separate “legal due process” out as the final step with a new ombuds office to be the initial consumer complaint step in direct collaboration with the “lending institution” towards a solution.  By example, one ombudsman financial services office in the news is determining that about 35% of consumer complaints have a well founded basis and the financial institution is “accepting” the results of the investigation and “correcting mistakes”.  At the same time between 25-35% of consumer complaints have NO basis and are dismissed yet archived for future ombuds office case reference only, per ethical requirements.  The remainder of cases proceed to formal legal channels at the government level and are pending.  Most likely “forced” arbitration or mediation will be the final phase as ordered by the “state” with final authority.

Again, there is a petition circulating as written by Kenneth Cloke and his Center for Dispute Resolution.  His leadership with the Obama Administration is to establish what “we” all see as a necessary step to bridge the gap in our US system between consumers, government and the financial services industry.  Please “digitially sign” the petition especially if you are part of the ombudsman profession.