Two Perspectives on Learning the Organizational Ombudsman Role

Date01 July 2014
Published date01 July 2014
C R Q, vol. 31, no. 4, Summer 2014 447
Published 2014.  is article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.
Published online in Wiley Online Library ( • DOI: 10.1002/crq.21096
Two Perspectives on Learning the Organizational
Ombudsman Role
Linda Myers
Lisa Witzler
is article explores the challenges in learning the role of the organiza-
tional ombudsman from the perspectives of two practitioners—one an
experienced workplace mediator, the other a student of confl ict resolu-
tion.  e discussion of the shift in thinking, as well as skills needed to
transition into the various facets of organizational ombudsman work,
combines concepts from ombudsman theory with insights on enhanc-
ing ombudsman practice.  e authors provide observations and recom-
mendations based on their own experiences assuming the roles of a new
ombudsman, including refl ective practice and partnering, coaching
with employees, and expanding systemic engagements with and cultural
knowledge of organizations.
Each organizational ombudsman defi nes the role diff erently, even
though there are many similarities in practice and many ombudsmen
adhere to the standards of practice and code of ethics of the International
Ombudsman Association (“IOA Standards of Practice” 2009). However,
no two ombudsmen practice alike because the role is shaped not only by
the person, but also by the organization within which the ombudsman
operates. Each ombudsman learns the role diff erently and creates her own
defi nition of the role in practice within the context of her unique organi-
zation. As we have experienced, the learning curve can be steep, even for
seasoned alternative dispute resolution (ADR) professionals.
We describe how the two of us learned the role and experienced the
transition into the ombudsman profession. We are describing our experi-
ences in the hope of providing guidance for others so they may shorten
their own learning curves. Linda Myers has an extensive training and
C R Q • DOI: 10.1002/crq
mediation background in multiple federal agencies and comes to the
ombudsman profession as a skilled alternative dispute resolution practi-
tioner. Lisa Witzler has experience working within academic and scien-
tifi c institutions and extensive knowledge of ADR theory. Prior to joining
the ombudsman staff at NIH, neither had experience as an organizational
In our offi ce, after an initial orientation, new ombudsmen learn the
role on the job by observing experienced colleagues for several cases, then
teaming with experienced ombudsmen on several cases, and fi nally taking
on solo cases.  roughout the training period, new ombudsmen meet reg-
ularly with our director and debrief with colleagues. All of the ombudsmen
meet individually with the director weekly to discuss cases and we meet as
a group once a week for a case review.
The Experienced Mediator and Trainer—Linda Myers
I have nearly two decades of experience as an ADR program manager,
mediator, and facilitator. I came to the organizational ombudsman role
with signifi cant practical experience in addressing confl ict within orga-
nizations.  is experience aff ords me some of the skills of an organiza-
tional ombudsman, including active listening and reframing confl ict
(see Harrison 2004 for insights into ombuds skills and eff ectiveness).
Because the basic tenets of the work are the same for mediators and
ombudsmen, I already understood the importance of those concepts.
However, the context in which these standards of practice and skills
are used as an organizational ombudsman is much more complex and
dynamic than that of a workplace mediator. In the following sections, I
note some of the diff erences between a mediator and an organizational
ombudsman, or an “embedded neutral.
Parachute Mediator versus Embedded Neutral
In the federal sector, the two primary sources of workplace mediation are
equal employment opportunity (EEO) complaints and grievances fi led by
federal employees against an agency (see Bingham 2004 and Monahan
2008). Employees are typically given the opportunity to mediate early
in the complaint process in an eff ort to settle the dispute. In the typical
EEO mediation or grievance, the mediator’s and the parties’ expectations
for the overall process are relatively well defi ned. e mediator’s role is

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