Mar. 2, 2022


This is the second in a series of posts exploring the four ethical principles that serve as the foundation of the practice of an organizational ombuds: informality, independence, impartiality, and confidentiality. Today, I will share some thoughts on what independence means for ombuds and those who use their offices.

Usually it is terrible form to start off with a dictionary definition, but here it may be warranted, as we are talking about different use of the word than might be commonly assumed. For that reason, I beg your indulgence before saying that the International Ombuds Association’s Code of Ethics articulates “independence” to mean that “the Ombuds is independent in structure, function, and appearance to the highest degree possible within the organization.”

This principle guided how UNLV conceived the revived Ombuds Office and informed the way that it was structured. This is apparent in four ways.

First, following IOA best practices, the Ombuds reports directly to the highest-ranking person at UNLV, the President. The Ombuds Office is not part of Human Resources or any other division, but rather stands on its own. As Ombuds, I don’t have any other role at UNLV that would conflict with my work in the office. While I can serve in an ex-officio capacity on university committees and am free to share my opinions, following ombuds practice I do not vote. And, if I do see a potential conflict, per the Ombuds Charter, I am empowered to recuse myself.

Second, no one has the authority to order the Ombuds to meet with an individual or not to meet with them. The Ombuds has sole discretion as to which cases he or she hears.

Third, the Ombuds is autonomous in selecting staff for the office and in operating the office. While the Ombuds does take input from members of the university community seriously when choosing how to use the office’s resources, no one has the power to tell the Ombuds to initiate (or not to initiate) any course of action or program.

Fourth, the Ombuds does not “take the side” of any organization in the university. Here at UNLV, the Ombuds serves the community of all employees, and does not speak with those who use the office as a representative of the administration.

In practical terms, independence means that when someone comes to the Ombuds Office, they are able to discuss their concerns in a free and open way. They can be confident that the person they are speaking with will be keeping their concerns in mind rather than worrying about what would be the most advantageous outcome for a particular part of the organization.

Independence is an important attribute for any ombuds office that serves a community at large, since it enables the office to respond to a variety of concerns from all who use it.

Note that the IOA Code of Ethics says that the Ombuds must be independent “to the highest degree possible within the organization.” This is an acknowledgement that the Ombuds can never be completely independent from the organization they serve. After all, they are an employee, and they typically have history there. For these reasons, it is important to create structural separations between the Ombuds and other parts of the organization—hence the mandate that the Ombuds report directly to the highest possible level.

Equally as important to maintaining structural independence is vigilantly cultivating an attitude of independence within the Ombuds Office. Because absolute structural independence is not feasible, Ombuds Office staff must constantly remind themselves that they exist to serve the entire community of employees, and that to do so fairly means they must practice independence. In many ways, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the Ombuds develops a track record of acting in ways that evidence independence, the office gains a reputation for independence.

Finally, independence means that, whatever your concern, the Ombuds Office is a resource for every member of the campus community who is in conflict, or just wants to talk. If you would like to speak with an impartial voice in a confidential setting that is completely distinct from any formal process, disciplinary or otherwise, do not hesitate to make an appointment with the Ombuds. Our door is open.

David G. Schwartz