Okay. Now it’s time for a beer. After trying for weeks to resolve a conflict between two senior leaders, it was my last resort. Leading the company’s HR talent team, I had been trained in conflict resolution and was bringing all my best tools forward, but nothing seemed to want to pry these two finance executives away from each other’s throats.
I was reminded of former President Obama’s infamous “beer summit,” where he brought two parties together over a beer in hopes of working through a sticky arrest situation. At my wit’s end, my attempt at my own beer summit was successful. They made their budget, and their teams quickly learned to work well together again.
But most employees don’t receive nearly as much support for our conflicts at work, whether due to competing priorities or lack of resources. According to Pollack Peacebuilding, US employees spend nearly three hours each week in conflict, resulting in around $359 billion in paid time filled with conflict instead of productivity. That’s two and a half weeks of lost productivity each year, all due to conflict. So what can we do to address it?
Enter the role of ombuds: a neutral third party that aims to address and prevent workplace issues, conflicts, and lawsuits.
Where are the ombuds, and how can they help?
Freada Kapor Klein, a diversity advocate and co-author of Closing the Equity Gap: Creating Wealth and Fostering Justice in Startup Investing, says ombuds can create more impartial—and equitable—ways to work through conflict. “Ombuds provide a sounding board for employees,” she said. “They are a neutral third party whose loyalty is to ethics and principles and values. Their loyalty isn’t to a management representative or an employee representative. Instead, they are loyal to a set of ombuds ethics and to whatever the company’s policies and practices are.”
Kapor Klein says the role is more common in Europe and nonprofit institutions. For decades, hospitals have had ombuds to handle patient disputes. Universities have also had ombuds, usually to address student issues. There’s even an Organization of News Ombudsman in journalism to investigate complaints from readers.
It’s too often a crisis, perhaps a series of one or more public scandals, that raises the importance of the ombuds’ role. One issue that an ombuds can prevent, Kapor Klein said, is discrimination. “It’s ironic, because ombuds are great at prevention, yet they often come in after a crisis,” Kapor Klein said. And we need them: In 2021, there were more than 60,000 workplace discrimination charges in the U.S., resulting in more than $34 million in damages.
Kapor Klein offers a modern case study of an ombuds in action. Let’s say your friend is a female associate at a law firm. They decide to meet with their company ombuds and inquire about some uncomfortable behavior initiated by a senior partner who runs the area they aspire to practice in. This person also headed the summer associates program and made inappropriate comments at a work event. The goal for your friend is to keep their desired career and get the uncomfortable behavior to stop. Through working with the ombuds, they were able to determine they wanted to take action to get the behavior to stop. They worked out that the senior partner would be removed from their reporting line and moved to a different floor—and monitored for any repeat behavior. Despite changing the reporting relationship, they did not require them to move off their original team.
How a company ombuds works
The modern ombuds provides two functions, according to Kapor Klein. First, they provide a neutral party to discuss employee questions and concerns. This is where conflict can be prevented.
“Inappropriate sexual conduct in the workplace starts at the subtle end of the spectrum,” she said. “Not always, but usually, it starts with inappropriate comments, jokes, and teasing. And what happens if it can’t be effectively interrupted and it escalates?” So, if an individual asks Is it just me?, or Is this inappropriate?, they can turn to an ombuds for advice and to file complaints.
Second, ombuds can provide early warning signs to companies. By talking confidentially with concerned employees, they can track issues and provide options to address the situation.
Options are necessary as many individuals fear being labeled troublemakers, unable to roll with the punches or solve their own problems, Kapor Klein believes. “All of which can be career limiting, if not career-ending,” she said.
Ombuds can also connect people who may be having the same experience. This allows them to validate what they’re experiencing and decide what they’d like to do to address it. Once more people come forward with similar concerns, the ombuds will ask if they’ll consider taking action. Here the ombuds acts as a broker, tracking and addressing repeated issues. “When you know you’re not alone, and you know you’re not being hypersensitive, then you’re much more willing to come forward,” Kapor Klein said.
The modern ombuds, from Pinterest to the World Bank
With so much sensitivity around escalating issues at work, there’s a need for increased ease and application of an ombuds. Going to HR often brings a bit of nerves: The company employs them, it’s tough to protect anonymity, and many of their workflows lead to a formal investigation. In contrast, the modern ombuds is an independent, confidential, impartial, and off-the-record resource for today’s workers.
Pinterest hired an ombuds after a shareholder lawsuit alleging top executives enabled a culture of discrimination. Christine Deputy, Pinterest’s chief people officer, has said having a third-party role helped overhaul their culture. “She follows the International Ombuds Association guidelines, so everything she does is confidential,” Deputy told Fortune. “She reports to our CEO, so she doesn’t report to HR—she’s not part of our budget. She is an active resource for any employee to understand: How do I navigate Pinterest? Who should I call? Is this a normal policy? [If] they don’t want to have an investigation, they don’t want to raise a concern with their manager, or they just feel uncomfortable about something, they can speak to her.”
Other organizations have used ombuds to collect data on their culture. “When the World Bank had an ombuds, they sent out an annual report of how many complaints they’ve gotten, the number of visitors to the ombuds office, the categories of behavior, and the resolutions,” Kapor Klein said. “The whole practice is about transparency and educating the workforce that this is how many times people end up on the wrong side of this behavior. And most of these can be resolved amicably. However, in X percent of cases, the initiator of this behavior was found to be a serial violator of World Bank policy and is no longer with the World Bank.” Data can quantify issues and signal to the c-suite and boards that their behavior and values are strongly in sync.
For those that prefer to outsource, other organizations like tEQuitable allow companies to hire a group of ombuds their staff can work with and confide in. “Rather than one person who’s in a company and has to navigate being acceptable to all levels of employees, a third-party provider is a group,” Kapor Klein said. “It might be that somebody has more experience handling racial harassment, while another ombuds has more experience on LGBTQIA matters.”
In any use case, Kapor Klein hopes that concerns of retaliation are a thing of the past. Done early, an ombuds work can air out communication issues, resolve discrimination and harassment, and provide conflict resolution before they escalate further. It’s a role that directly impacts positive outcomes—with quick resolutions and fewer beer summits.