October 10th marks the second celebration of National Ombuds Day, with a theme of “Ombuds: Unusual Name, Important Service.”   Events across the country are being held in an effort to educate the public about the value and role that ombuds play in a variety of settings, including within educational institutions and other organizations.

In Connecticut, Governor Dannel P. Malloy issued an official statement acknowledging the recognition of this day, and Quinnipiac University will be recognizing the event with activities scheduled for October 15th.   For more information about this event, click here.

What is an organizational ombuds?

While there are many different types of ombuds programs, organizational ombuds are tasked with providing information and outreach to a variety of individuals within an organization.  In the educational context, these individuals may include students, employees, parents or alumni.  An organizational ombuds is an independent, confidential resource available to discuss concerns, brainstorm potential options, and assist in seeking a fair resolution of issues that arise within an organization. An ombuds can identify trends and advocate for change with the ultimate goal of preventing such issues in the future. Most directly, they serve as a voluntary, confidential, and anonymous channel of communication, filling the gap left by other mechanisms, such as compliance offices, whistle-blower policies, and hotlines. In this role, organizational ombuds serve as an alternate mechanism for resolving complaints and are not a replacement for any formal compliance channel.  They can be an effective tool to manage risk and improve the culture of an educational institution or other organization.

What kinds of issues can an ombuds address?

Consider for example the following situations:

  • A faculty member notices inappropriate, seemingly romantic exchanges between a well-respected colleague and a student but does not want to confront the teacher or alert the administration without being certain of wrongdoing.
  • A student feels that he is being bullied by a well-loved and successful coach but does not want to report him for fear of losing playing time or, potentially, his spot on the team.
  • A teacher questions whether he should have reported his suspicion of child abuse of a former student years ago when the student’s younger sibling joins his class and exhibits behavior he finds odd, but he doesn’t know how to handle the situation given his failure to report similar suspicion in the past.

How does a school become aware of these problems, resolve them, and prevent them in the future if none of the victims or witnesses feel comfortable bringing them to the school’s attention or making a formal complaint or report?  In these types of situations, a structured organizational ombuds program could provide a safe place in which students, faculty, and staff can discuss their concerns, determine their options, and work to resolve difficult issues in a confidential setting. An organizational ombuds program could also offer a cost-effective way for schools to address issues that might not otherwise surface, deal with conflict proactively, and avoid potential lawsuits.

The organizational ombuds model can be tailored to meet the specific needs of any organization, including educational institutions, but there are certain characteristics that are essential. Organizational ombuds do not investigate specific misconduct or provide legal advice. They may serve various constituents (such as faculty, students, or staff), but they do not advocate on behalf of, or represent any particular group.  Most importantly, organizational ombuds are independent, impartial, confidential, and informal.

The independence of an ombuds office must exist in structure, function, and appearance. The organizational ombuds should not be subordinate to management, human resources, or the compliance office. The ombuds must be free from interference or control without any threat of the imposition of a penalty for retaliatory purposes.

Regarding impartiality, an organizational ombuds conducts inquiries free from initial bias and conflicts of interest. The ombuds does not advocate for management or employee issues, but provides a fair process and seeks equitable solutions. Even though an ombuds must be impartial, he or she can work to secure institutional change when it becomes apparent that there are trends or tendencies within the institution that need to change.

Confidentiality is a keystone of the ombuds office. With limited exception, such as the threat of serious imminent harm or specific legal mandate, an organizational ombuds does not reveal and cannot be compelled to disclose information learned in confidence. In accordance with ethical obligations, an organizational ombuds does not reveal a complainant’s identity without his or her express consent but may share information as long as the source is not revealed. Notably, if disclosure is deemed necessary, it should be as limited as possible and any exceptions to confidentiality should be discussed with the source. In addition, any documentation maintained by a properly constituted ombuds program is confidential and not subject to disclosure.

An organizational ombuds program is informal and operates off the record as much as it can. An ombuds program serves as an alternate channel to resolve issues raised by constituents and assure an institution’s compliance with applicable rules, regulations, policies, and procedures. When an individual seeks the services of an ombuds, the ombuds should provide information about other reporting options and processes, including those available to preserve legal rights. The ombuds office must be clear that it is not a formal channel for reporting, that it is not authorized to receive notice, and that it is structured and operated in a manner such that notice will not be imputed.

Is an ombuds program right for our organization or educational institution?

As a matter of practice, an organization must carefully consider many factors when determining whether to establish or participate in an ombuds program. For educational institutions, they should reflect on whether they would want to have their own ombuds program or share an ombuds with other schools; determine what constituency the ombuds office would serve and whether the types of issues would be limited to a specific scope; identify appropriate persons for the ombuds role and ensure those persons are well-trained; and document the role and structure of the ombuds by developing a charter, descriptive brochure, and website. When properly structured and operated, an organizational ombuds program can be a cost-effective way to help members of the school community address important issues that may otherwise not be raised and allow schools to learn about issues affecting their campuses, mitigate risk and provide a resource for stakeholders to be heard and resolve potential conflict.

For further information about ombudsman programs, please contact Julie C. Fay at (860) 251-5009 or jfay@goodwin.com or Dori Pagé Antonetti at (860) 251-5518 or dantonetti@goodwin.com.