Feb. 16, 2022


The International Ombuds Association’s Code of Ethics outlines four basic ethical principles: informality, independence, impartiality, and confidentiality. Each of these is necessary to the practice of an organization ombuds, and each offers benefits to both those who visit the office and the larger institutional community. I feel it will helpful to use this space to explain to the campus community why each of these principles is important to an ombuds and those they serve.

In this post, I would like to explain why informality is an important element of my work.

First, I want to clarify what informality means in this context. It isn’t sartorial. Those who have visited the office are aware that I’m partial to jackets (or cardigans) and ties. Rather, “informal” in ombuds-speak means that (here I quote from the IOA’s Code of Ethics), that the Ombuds “does not participate in any formal or adjudicative or administrative procedure related to concerns brought to his/her attention.”

Let me unpack all that with a hypothetical. Someone on campus has a question about an issue they are facing. They might not be sure how to proceed, or who to contact. Do they call HR? Talk to their dean? Doing that may trigger a formal process or response that they are not necessarily ready to begin. Once started down the formal path, however, they may be locked into the process.

In contrast, since the Ombuds Office is informal, that employee can speak with the Ombuds without starting a process or having any record of the conversation. They can learn their options and then choose which formal process they want to undertake, if any.

Here's a slightly less abstract hypothetical: a faculty member is denied tenure or promotion. While the letter informing them of this unfortunate outcome typically includes information about how the faculty member can appeal the decision, that faculty member may want someplace to discuss their options. Obviously, this is a stressful situation. The person that many faculty turn to for formal or informal advice, the chair, may have a role in the reconsideration process and may, in fact, have recommended against the applicant. The same is true for other administrators and senior faculty members.

For this reason, it may be helpful for the faculty member to speak with someone informally, who does not participate in either the process that led to the adverse outcome or any potential remedy. That’s what having an informal option—an ombuds—provides.

Of course, some people want action, now. They don’t want someone who will listen to them, help them reframe their story, and discuss options. They know what needs to be fixed, and need someone to fix it ASAP.

They may be right, but there are good reasons why an organizational ombuds isn’t the right person to take formal action. First, most “fixes,” whether they are appealing adverse personnel actions or reporting potential ethical violations, have established processes, often codified in the NSHE Board of Regents Handbook and UNLV Bylaws. To have someone meting out summary justice outside of those channels strikes me as inherently problematic, and not just for fans of due process. Further, it would be a violation of the Ombuds Charter, which specifically states that the Ombuds has “no authority to make administrative decisions, conduct investigations, or the authority to change disciplinary actions or performance evaluation ratings.”

Second, there is the question of timing. Let’s say an employee disagrees with their supervisor’s evaluation of their performance, and wants the Ombuds to force the supvervisor to change it. What if the Ombuds has already been contacted by the supervisor, who believes that their employee’s refusal to accept constructive feedback in the evaluation is undermining their unit’s morale, and wants the Ombuds to force them to sign the evaluation and move on? As the Ombuds Office serves all employees, the Ombuds will not pick sides. There can be no formal role for the Ombuds as an advocate or arbiter here.

However, each side in this dispute could informally use the Ombuds Office to get perspective on what the conflict is about, to improve their own self-advocacy, and maybe, just maybe, figure out how they can candidly discuss the issues that led to the disputed evaluation. It is possible that the Ombuds could offer support to both parties, which would not be possible in a formal process in which the Ombuds had an investigatory or decision-making role. (Here we are getting into the territory of “impartiality,” another ethical principle, that I will discuss in the future.)

Third, keeping out of formal processes gives the Ombuds a perspective that may inform their perceptions of systemic issues that demand change. Were the Ombuds part of those processes, it would be difficult for them to separate their role in them from considerations of how they might be improved.

For those reasons, the Ombuds best serves the community by remaining informal.

This informality means a few things for those who visit the Ombuds Office. First, speaking to the Ombuds will never trigger any investigation. Because of the informal and confidential nature of the Ombuds Office, the Ombuds can’t receive claims against the university, for the simple reason that, having no investigatory authority and being forbidden from disclosing what the visitor discussed, there is nothing the Ombuds can do to pursue a resolution. This is reflected in the Charter, which stipulates that the Ombuds is not authorized to receive claims, although the Ombuds can direct a visitor to a place that is.

Second, the Ombuds will not keep a record of what you talked about, or any individually-identifiable information. Maybe you don’t have all of your facts in order. Maybe you aren’t sure what really happened. The Ombuds Office is a space where you can talk it out without being locked into a narrative, as might not be the case in a more formal venue.

Third, because it exists outside formal processes, the Ombuds Office can provide neutral information about those processes: if you want to file a complaint against someone, what should you expect? If someone has filed a complaint against you, what should you expect? You may not feel comfortable talking with those who investigate or make decisions in these matters about the process, but the Ombuds can give you an independent window into what to expect.

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