Ombudsman Best Practice: Case Notes and Archiving

Over the recent months I’ve read several articles and blogs addressing the issue and professional ethics of discarding case notes or preserving them as a historical record for possible future reference.  Until now I had not come to any definite conclusion on which is best, but I have now determined that I’ll let the case by case situational status guide me as to how case notes will be treated.  In my “undeclared ombudsmanship” roles there are no case notes, only the memorandums, charters or at least emails “confirming” the consensus and consent of the group or team as a result of resolving issues or conflicts.  These are “open” and transparent communications that are archived to “re-enforce” the group should things stray off track.   This article discusses an Ombudsman ADR case where the collection of ‘materials’ and statements creates a physical (scanned) and digital files folder that needs confidentiality and management contrary to transparent results that organizations may require.

In a recent business dispute I was asked to intervene as a mediating Ombudsman.  None of the parties actually met face to face, the intervention structure was “shuttle diplomacy” using on-line mediation or e-mediation.  The identified “abuses” as declared by the e-commerce web site client company were email and phone messages with “strong language” from an angry customer.  My role was to “remotely” process the complaint and collect information and get down to the root issue between an individual and company customer service employees.  In the beginning, everything did proceed normally, there was communication with me from “both sides” and a collecting of notes into a case journal with links and other email and attachments “supporting” the position of each side.  Each person completed a complaint form.  There were several rounds of discussions to be thorough and complete.  As time passed and unilateral discussion proceeded independently with each party, it became apparent to me that the person in the role of “complainant” against the company was not going to fully participate in the process.  Given my 6 C’s process, a vortex of little or no communication resulted in a lack of fulfilling the 3rd C, cooperation.  The agreement to mediate between both parties had reciprocity from only one side and for a couple of weeks I “assumed” the other would follow through on their verbal confirmation.  This never resulted in an agreement to mediate by all parties.  As “evidence” surfaced as to what the facts were regarding the complaint it didn’t “add up” either.  Pretty soon I was simply working to keep communications open and moving forward, hoping to get the last party into the mediation process, but as time passed the frequency and “desire” to continue by the complainant simply “faded away”.

Key to the process was simply confirming facts verbally with phone discussion based on other information collected.  The passage of time and “heat of the moment” seemed to change the complainant’s disposition in that I believe there was a “realization” and certain level of “embarrassment” once all of the facts were aggregated and “confirmed” during the processing of the complaint form.  In life, as I live and learn, I believe I processed and interviewed the complaint form “too deeply” prior to initiating the mediation agreement.  Initially, e-Mediation with parties has a lot of anonymity and “impersonal” facets to the interaction and these factors also “embolden” some people thinking they are out of reach of any consequences from their actions and irrational behaviors.  The tendency for people to treat others in “abusive” ways seems to be “enhanced” where there is no “personal” relationship, consequence or connection with one another.  In this scenario the “customer service” between a customer and company representatives had the usual “demands” made  by the customer with the threat of ceasing business and/or formal legal action “unless” demands are met.  Once a “third party” is called to step in and bring fairness, integrity and parity to the issue between parties… the tone changes and with the passage of time… passions subside.  In this case, the same characteristics that make the Internet truly “independent” for Ombudsman ADR are also the opposite “edge of the sword” that seems to psychologically empower the darker nature of human beings to “abuse” and “inflame” others.

This “case” never proceeded to completion, never made it past “cooperation” in the 6 C’s.  There was no acknowledged outcome or terms.  I sent “notice” to both parties that they had 30 days to decide to continue and that if they no longer desired to proceed the “case file” would be archived for future reference with no time limit.  The company contacted me by email and asserted they would continue and wanted to resolve any “real issue” if I’d found something.  I agreed and indicated that if the other party “came back to the table”, we would refresh the mediation agreement and continue.  The complainant never responded to the notice and did not communicate with me or the company during the 30 days notice.  The company would like to keep their customer and that remains to be seen now given the non-communication cycle that is persisting.

In conclusion, clearly, the collecting of facts, having information on file from both sides and “realization” by all parties that certain “abuses” were not acceptable behaviors or interactions has resulted in a “solution unto itself” so to speak.  In internal ombuds offices, a corporation for example, such “files” should be managed “off site” and on an “independent” network server from the rest of the “enterprise” I believe rather than “not kept”.  In cases where “social interactions” are not in close proximity, two “external” entities are involved, such as B2B scenarios similar to this discussion; an organizational ombudsman indepentent of both parties and locations can safely maintain and manage physical and digital files contingent upon possible future needs.

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2 Responses to Ombudsman Best Practice: Case Notes and Archiving

  1. Tim Griffin says:

    Your sentence stating that “The tendency for people to treat others in “abusive” ways seems to be “enhanced” where there is no “personal” relationship, consequence or connection with one another.” is certainly true in my experience as well. I field many more concerns about harassment and incivility allegedly having occurred through such communications than allegedly having occurred through less impersonal media.
    I appreciate your distinction between mediators and those of us who use “ombuds” in our titles. As your post illustrates, mediation has now become a very formal process requiring records to be maintained. This is why more and more of us ombudspersons are no longer conducting “mediations” (but rather “facilitated conversations”). This helps us to protect confidentiality and stay true to our principle of informality.
    Tim Griffin

  2. organizationalombudsman says:

    Hi Tim,
    thanks for that, there’s a lot of “us” out here. Yes, and so if case notes are retained and archived and such individuals have been provided “notice” as such, I believe, and it’s what I’m indirectly hinting at, they will be more cautious and perhaps learn something. I also appreciate your second paragraph and your differentiation of ombuds from legal mediation and thus I always try to “brand” the term “Ombudsman ADR” to include self directed mediation with a facilitator in a collaborative process.

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