Confidentiality, impartiality, informality and independence: these are the guiding principles of the Ombud role. However, in order to have the best possible chances of a positive outcome, another important ingredient is needed: early action. Do not wait until a situation has deteriorated so far that it becomes unbearable – set the Ombud clock ticking and enlist support as soon as you begin to feel that things are not going well…
Early intervention can make all the difference in dealing with conflict situations. If contacted in a timely manner, the Ombud can provide you with confidential support in identifying the various options by which you may address the situation, thereby enabling you to choose the strategy that you feel will give you the best chances of success.
So what actually goes on within the four walls of the Ombud’s office? First and foremost, it is a safe place to tell your story, get another perspective on your situation and explore ways in which to deal with it. The role of the Ombud is to help you to clarify your own objectives and to identify the various ways in which you may choose to act. This may include some coaching by which you will be encouraged to consider alternatives and “think outside the box” to sound out your own individual resources in order to manage the issues that you face. Another form of support that you may opt for is mediation, which consists of a more structured framework within which the Ombud will facilitate a discussion between concerned parties who agree to take part in this process to reach a mutually acceptable outcome. Finally, the Ombud may also be called to intervene in certain situations, always on the understanding that any action taken will have been agreed with you beforehand.
A quick look at the history of CERN’s Ombud Office shows that the function has been gradually integrated into the Organization’s culture since its introduction in 2010, with the numbers of visitors to the Ombud growing steadily from around 80 to around 100 a year on average. Whilst the comparatively low number of visitors (around 2% of staff members compared to 4% or more in other international organisations) suggests that our workplace culture is generally supportive, it must be said that the consideration shown by the Organization cannot be measured by the well-being of its strongest members alone but rather by the way it treats its most vulnerable colleagues.
The experience of the CERN Ombud indicates that the overall distribution of issues across the years remains fairly constant, and as such it can be considered to be an accurate reflection of the concerns that would appear to be endemic to our organisational culture and environment. Indeed, the latest Ombud Annual Report shows that the largest proportion of issues raised systematically over the last five years relate to the supervisor-supervisee relationship, where “it is not so much the actual outcome but rather the way in which the decision was reached or communicated that is the core complaint”. Issues within the peer relationship category stem mainly from abrasive communication exchanges both in person and via e-mail, whilst sexist remarks and other types of unwelcome behaviour of this nature also persist, with reference, in particular, to cultural and generational differences and apparent bystander indifference.
The creation of an Ombud Office in 2010 was a clear signal of CERN’s commitment to the well-being of its personnel and of its wish to provide a respectful and supportive work environment for all concerned. As inter-personal issues emerge and our awareness of the difficulties faced by some of our colleagues grows, we also grow in our understanding of what makes for a healthy workplace that continually strives to promote fairness, trust and mutual respect in all our interactions. For this to remain an ongoing reality, we must all actively engage, management and other staff alike, in living our values with integrity, and in bringing issues to the surface as early as possible in order to manage them with courage, intelligence and empathy.