An Ombud’s Cornerstone: Character and Integrity

30 July 2009

My contributions to the dialogue on Professional Certification for “our” profession has been that “personal character and integrity” are critical to professional and ethical practice in the broader “conflict resolution” industry.  I have even suggested it be part of the certification considerations.  At this time I’m reading more stories, news and blogs that are all publishing “media” around this very important theme and concept.  Everything from “common courtesy”, apology and thank you to simply NOT choosing to make an issue with someone by picking a single fault and making a major drama out of it.  Even more critical is that “our profession” has the opportunity to “differentiate” ourselves from the general public perceptions and “generic brands” of legal mediation by “practicing what we preach” and staying in true “ombudsmanship” form at all times, not just while “practicing”.   So, at this time I’ll provide 3 items for your consideration that add onto the body of work already out there and being discussed that “hint at integrity and character”, but what are now “point blank”  very applicable and relevant given the consumer’s perspective today.

While it’s been circulating for awhile, Deborah Sword PhD has written an outstanding article, Professionalization of Conflict Resolvers, that weaves several concepts into the common theme that “character and integrity” are “ancient societal traits” that community members recognize and want by asking community leaders for guidance and assistance to resolve their conflict.  Basically, she and I both agree that society would prefer someone known and respected for their integrity  in a community to help them first and then consider “degrees, licenses and professional certifications” as being important, but not the primary factor for selecting someone.  While these accreditation’s may be important, they are more associated with “elitist” professions that have more “self interest” than shall we say, “community member interest” and this is evident in American society today.  I don’t have the source, but sometime back I was reading a news article where a high school principle was asked to step forward and “mediate” a community meeting between members of an African American Church and a Korean owned quick mart in Los Angeles.  Both “sides” having grown up in the community and “knowing” the principle as being “fair” and trustworthy, simply asked him to help them, and he did and “racial issues”, both false and real, were sorted out.  As a result a community “council” was also formed to help provide a venue for “future” needs and well… all of this outside of the legal system and police intervention.  So, if you have or have not read Professionalization of Conflict Resolvers, read it now for the underlying trend, the “unspoken” theme through out the article about “teaching, practicing and relying on one’s own character and integrity”.

Next, I had the opportunity recently to participate in an on-line discussion around “group mediation”.  Tammy Lenski PhD of Conflict Zen made a one hour presentation on her three decades long experience mediating to groups, not individuals and not from a legal dispute model, but simply that there are business and organizational groups in conflict sometimes and informal ajudication is not the goal.  By the time the hour was over I was personally very aware that she trades on her own established “character and integrity” more than her degrees or certificates, which she never mentioned as being of a high level of importance to “corporate clients”.  Indeed, she echoed my own experience and I can affirm she’s “got it down”, her “walking the talk” of character and integrity adding more confidence and trust as a result for all individuals and entities that get the priveledge to “engage” with her.  I hope they realize how fortunate they are.  More important, her own “proprietary method and approach” has been refined and shared with clients as she delivers a program where she educates them and makes them enabled, empowered and qualified to manage their own disputes long after she’s left the conference room.  This is in alignment with my own process and goal in The 6 C’s of Sociocratic Peace Building.  Also, again, I can’t help but think about, same with Deborah Sword, how they both “enable” individuals to go out into their families, groups, entities, organizations and communities to be “peace makers” wherever they go.  Nice…

Finally, a true story and video example of “real life” and how character and integrity “work for you” in times of “personal crisis and conflict”.  Many years back my youngest son came home from high school, I was working, but he smelled smoke at our townhouse complex, looked around and saw the garages behind the units had “smoke” coming out of a few of them.  He called 911 and police and fire came and damage was minimal, thank you son.  To keep this as short as possible, what happened next was amazing to me.  Police took him, cuffed him and were going to take him in for questioning.  He asked for a “phone call” at that moment, he called me and I “came home” immediately.  I engaged police and the on scene fire chief who quoted statistics to me that over 70% of the time a fire is reported it’s started by the “person reporting” the fire.  I then said, “you guys stop now and ask any of these neighbors around us about my son” and if he is of a “character” to warrant your suspicions that he  started the fire; since you don’t believe me as his father.  Indeed, they walked over to the wife of a man who months earlier had fallen down outside his home with a heart attack and my son got the EMT’s that saved the man’s life.  In the end, they let him go and subsequent investigation indicated a “smoker”, which my son was not a smoker, threw a cigarette into an “open garage door” when no one was looking.  So now, this last week, a famous African American Professor and a Causcasian Policeman are in a “racial profiling dispute”, but once again, established character and integrity and the cornerstone in this case and the  “the stone of truth” as offered by his fellow “peers”, of all races.  This is the CNN story video link to view “integrity” first hand.

So, foster it, nurture it, change your own subtle “conflicting” habits so as to be able to be an acknowledged professional of “known character” and your standing will differentiate you from the rest.  In “today’s world”, this is what consumers are seeking… in the midst of questionable ethics and chaos.


The “Incognito” Ombudsman: A Professional Development Exercise

16 July 2009

I am fully aware of my strengths and weaknesses and more importantly how a personality characteristic for forthright leadership, for example, can be useful in one professional role, but a weakness in another role.  The “trick” is to be aware and let oneself “switch roles” as appropriate, be able to consistently hold to that role and “temper” the skill or strength towards the goal or objective at hand on behalf of clients and not one’s own “interests”.  If you have the opportunity to do this, “practice” it, it can harmonize your strengths in that they won’t become an out of control “weakness” by applying them inappropriately.  It’s also empowering as the “new ombudsman” realizes they can achieve absolute control and mastery over emotions and “ego habits” that could interfere in ADR scenarios where “it’s not about us”, it’s about our client needs.  To the “outside” observer, if you are successfully “incognito”, they might perceive you as practicing “ombudsmanship” style conflict intervention techniques from a business management role for instance.  In “practical practice” this has the distinct advantage of resolving conflicts in an “undeclared informal structure” or process versus having participants become “resistant or intractable” to a formally declared intervention meeting.

The personal background to this is that I do enjoy leading from “the middle”.  In my overall business practice I am expected to provide insight, facts, data, opinions, solutions, experience, wisdom, leadership, best versus worst case scenarios and other attributes, woven and integrated into a document for decision makers.  These are always purposeful to achieve objectives and goals in my engagements and projects in collaboration with clients.  I have though, had to “watch myself” as I personally tend to “see the problem, identify the solution and then get anxious to communicate it”, which is good on one role, but NOT good in Ombudsman ADR and “self directed” negotiation and mediation scenarios.  This IS my weakness I’ve identified and have looked for the opportunity to “balance” it and get a “reign on the animal” in me about it.  Sometimes, this year, I’ve noticed I slip, but this latest opportunity I was successful at practicing it outside of a declared “informal” engagement.

I am a member of on-line communities and groups where I have relationships, collaborators, resources and friends.  Some know me personally, the vast majority only know my “handle” or pseudo ID.  In the last 2 weeks I’ve dropped in on “member posted threads” expressing dissatisfaction, dissent and discontent with a wide variety of issues from the employees boss or company, the melt down of the economy, privatization versus nationalization, to Bush vs Obama policy discussions, member “complaints” about each other and the moderator’s “failures” on the threads; and on it goes.  The moderators in this case actually “contribute” to the heated “polarization” expressing subjective opinions and clearly backed “factions” in the “thread debates” by “moderating” the “opposing opinions off the thread”, censoring speech thus resulting in “oppression and stifling” of “free speech”.  This last issue was getting very extremely heated and enraged some others to say the least.  Me, I’m not a “lurker”, but I do “practice what I preach” and never “inflame” or participate so as to polarize a discussion as a “participant” in the chaos.  For all of you out there who advocate that “conflict is good” and that it presents the opportunity to “engage” your skills, this is it, a way to “walk the talk”, apply our skills in genuine conflict, but without professional consequence.

So, I “incognito” began to step forward in the “threads” posting “neutral” statements and observations in apparent “opposition” to the moderator’s “authority”, my bad (smiles).  This really sparked them to “gang up” on me in the beginning, until I started asking them to “step back, this isn’t personal, remove their ego and subjectivity; and objectively take each ‘rule’ that posters were in violation of and apply it to ALL individuals”, equally and fairly.  I quickly looked around the “threads” and easily found dozens of violations of the posted policies, Terms of Service and “copy n’ pasted” them to the “current debate” with moderators.  This process was “openly visible” to all readers of the thread and moderators, to their credit, let the process unfold fairly without “censoring” my input.  I never disclosed my role, profession, who I am in reality.  I just saw the opportunity and began posting “points for fair and balanced analysis” for everyone, not just moderators.  Some individuals wanted to continue to “agitate” the situation, “taunted moderators”  and so I “intervened” and asked them to “self examine” their recent posts.  If someone were to say that to them using the “charged” language and tone they were projecting, “how would they take it?”.  Keep in mind here everyone was polite, there was not cussing, racism, “battle of the sexes” or other discriminatory “slanderous language” taking place.  People were focused on the points of the issues.  This is what I recognized as the “opportunity” to have good intervention, everyone was mature, it’s just they were passionate about beliefs and mostly, their favorite “political figure” over the other guys.  I participated for about 3 nights, reviewed a month of threads posts; “posted my findings” and for just over a week now, “the peace” has held.  (note: I wrote this article in late May 2009 and have held it till now to determine if the peace would hold and as of this 15th of July date it has, with only one major flare up mid June; however, this last week another “us vs. them” episode was handled with maturity, rational debate and cool emotions by dozens of individuals in the now “healthy debate” over degrees, credentialing, ethics, certification, licensing and other “regulating” practices.  Thus, it’s time to now post this as a “‘measure” of successful “ombudsmanship” methods some 10-11 weeks post intervention.)

So, I’m glad I had this chance to be “incognito” and be a “practice what I preach” Ombudsman not just in a formal role, but at all times.  In this instance I demonstrated to myself that I can  improve my ability to help others “self direct” and NOT bring my “strengths” inappropriately into a situation where it is not the ethical or best practice to “dictate the solution”.  How about you?  Are you “positioned neutrally” to get involved with or engage any social or business networks where you could practice ombudsmanship “incognito”?

Ombudsman ADR: The “Due Care” Process

1 July 2009

Recently a young couple from Ontario Canada emailed me asking for my “intervention” on their behalf with the Ontario Provincial Ombudsman’s Office.  Their expectation was clearly that I would “leap into action” and make everything “right” based on their perceptions of my blog and the drastic economic hardship situation they’re in, still in this moment; and that I could “fix” it.  Their communication and situation, as it is with millions of people nowadays, was filled with panic and chaos in the messages and material they emailed to me.  I have to admit, I initially took the “case” at face value with the idea that I could “facilitate” and expedite their issue that was pressing in on them in their dire quest towards getting “communication” going with officials in government.  This case is about not taking short cuts, making assumptions, but remaining diligent and objective at all times; and keeping with “due care”… here’s why.

In business we’ve all heard of “due diligence”, the process in business and finance of determining the validity of information, peoples identity, facts, confirmation, the truth and many other factors in what is usually a very long checklist of items needed for a broad variety of organizations to “make a decision” and determine risk prior to any formations, transactions or partnerships.  “Due Care” is less diligent, but highly relevant for our profession in terms of determining the validity of a complaint, fact checking and then getting the information from “others” or various sources so as to form a basis, substantiate or confirm information provided by everyone party to the complaint or issue.

For this couple the concise issue was very complex, more complex than I realized after saying “yes” email it all.  By the way, the good thing about Gmail is whole “conversations” come over “in tact and in sequence”; and in this case this saved me tons of time as I could read pages of email in order of response (or see gaps) by each Canadian government agency.  In brief, the case is about an “engaged to be married” couple (complainants) who have put off the ceremony due to the economy and her loss of job, his loss of “normal” overtime hours, their apartment complex going “condo association” and being forced to move (about now from what I remember) their financial obligations on student loans, credit card debt, funds needed to put down deposits to move and the “key” issues of child support to his 3 children with his ex-common law wife who is now remarried.  I can’t help but put here, “are all of you who are considering an ombudsman career ‘sure’ you want to do this?”  Anyway, I took the case knowing I’m “on the outside working in” as the dynamic if I’m to take any “direct contact” approach, but am hoping to “coach” them to resolve it themselves.

After days of review on my “down time” I started my “due care” process.  I didn’t take a complaint form as it was not applicable.  Soon what became the core finding was that the government office that makes adjustments in decrease or increase in child support levels year to year had then forward their “findings” to the court.  The “court orders” their child support rate obligations to the 3 children changed, in this case it was  “significantly up” and final “hearings” to confirm this were pending.  To the couples credit they “did the math”, I was proud of them, as they sent the percentage calculations over to me on their “one person” salary income household, subtracted obligations and the new percentage of income the increase in child support represented as a “chunk” shall we say, of their total household income.  Calculations were also correct.  In the end, long story short again, calculations by the government office and given to the court were formulated on 2008 wages, which were “loaded” with overtime hours.  Now, for 2009, everything has collapsed, their normal two wage earner household now unable to “gross minimum wage” anymore and the “threat” of being “forced” by government to comply looms over them with possible seizures of bank accounts and drivers license suspensions (needed to go to work).  What I was able to do was find where a few “missteps” on their part in the government policy and procedure had been “anxiously circumvented” rather than processed in “order of sequence” and so we got them back on track by now filing an “objection form” with the government agency and I helped them “refine and consolidate” their message.  I am confident “O’ Canada”, you will listen to your citizens needs here and be “fair”.  I’ve “kept the door open” for this couple and have not heard back in about 5 weeks now, but it should proceed okay now as they are “back in sequence” with government procedures on their issue.

Additionally, all OO’s in this type of scenario can provide advice and “listen” so as to “calm panic”.  You can provide “wisdom” about available community resources, sharing a place to live with others in similar situations temporarily, identify resources in their community for them as they are “focused” on the crises and not focused in making choices to “sustain” themselves; and much more.  Be careful about “credit counseling” as this is a separate profession and industry that is regulated; and so don’t make a “mistake” and over step your due process while exercising your “due care” procedures.

In the end this case never required that I “engage” the Canadian Ombudsman’s Provincial Office in Ontario.  The clients had contact them and received “no response”, but I suspect it’s because the couple had not exhausted proper procedure with the responsible government agencies they were “complaining” about.  Due Care requires “we” insure such processes are exhausted and completed before an ombudsperson engages.  If “due care” and taking time to review “every word” of the case had not been completed “diligently”, I could have “over stepped” or even worse; advised them into taking action maybe creating a  “polarizing” incident.  You too then?  Due Care at all times, be sure, be professional, be objective and consider policy and procedure of those entities clients have “issues” about in complex scenarios.