Ombuds a valuable alternative for dispute resolution

Cost-effective approach rights wrongs, makes recommendations

The recent growth and expansion of the ombudsman role in the public, para-public and, increasingly, the private sector is a testament to the adaptability, effectiveness and value of the function.

Ombuds offices can be helpful in resolving individual complaints and avoiding costly rights-based processes, but their value also comes in developing recommendations to address systemic or recurring problems. Organizational ombudsmen have the opportunity to make specific recommendations and give feedback to address the needs within an organization.

While much of their work is confidential or restricted to those who have a need to know, creating an ombuds office provides an invaluable service by righting wrongs, resolving complaints and making recommendations to improve rules, regulations, practices and procedures.

What exactly is an ombudsman?

The terms ombudsman, ombudsperson or ombuds are often used to describe a person who performs a specialized form of dispute resolution. They receive, investigate or otherwise seek to resolve complaints, determine whether complaints are valid or not and make recommendations to correct an unfair situation. They can also make recommendations to change unfair, inadequate or ineffective rules, regulations, policies and practices that can help prevent future complaints.

The role of an ombudsman in government was first established in Sweden in 1809. Over the centuries, the concept has been adapted by governments throughout the world. In Canada, there is no federal ombudsman but many government departments and ministries (such as National Defence, Canada Revenue Agency, Heritage Canada and Passport Canada) have an ombudsman.

There are also four federal ombudsmen with responsibility for specific sectors — official languages, privacy, information and corrections. As well, every province and territory except Prince Edward Island and Nunavut has an ombudsman to handle complaints about provincial government services. Some Canadian universities have had an ombudsman since the 1960s.

While the first Swedish ombudsman focused on the relationship between the king and his citizens, ombuds offices in organizations deal with complaints from customers or employees.

For example, the ombudsman at Tarion Warranty receives complaints from consumers who think Tarion has treated them unfairly. Canadian banks have ombudsmen in place to handle complaints from bank employees and customers. Coca-Cola’s ombudsman and Hydro-Québec’s corporate ombudsman deal with complaints from employees. Ombudsmen in universities and colleges often deal with complaints from students, faculty and administrative staff.

How is an ombudsman different from other dispute-resolution processes?

Although the context in which they work may differ, ombudsmen share similar characteristics — independence, confidentiality, impartiality, accessibility and informality. Many ombudsmen have the power to make recommendations and report their findings publicly.

Independence: Ombuds offices are independent of traditional management structures and an ombudsman should not hold multiple roles within an organization. Ombudsmen are a component of the wider dispute-resolution system but are not a substitute for normal administrative recourses or grievance and appeal processes.

Confidentiality: Complaints to the ombudsman are handled in a confidential manner. He may report on trends or recommendations but does not discuss individual cases without the permission of complainants.

Impartiality: The ombudsman does not take sides in a dispute — his interest is in ensuring fair treatment. Sometimes ombudsmen are wrongly considered advocates for the constituent groups they serve but, in fact, they are advocates for fair treatment and fair practice.

Accessibility and informality: It should be easy to find out about and access the ombudsman. They deal with complaints in an informal manner, ideally at the level most directly connected with a complaint.

Benefits to an organization

In comparison with rights-based processes such as formal grievances and lawsuits, an ombuds office is non-adversarial, quick and inexpensive. There is no cost to complainants and the annual budget of a small office can be less than the cost of defending a single court case.

An ombuds office also creates goodwill and sends the message an organization has a commitment to “doing the right thing.” It promotes fairness, informal resolution of disputes and increases an organization’s capacity to set complaints to rest without the cost and acrimony that often accompany formal processes.

The ombudsman’s role is defined in the terms of reference or mandate for the office. Generally, he reports at the highest level of an organization, receives and investigates complaints and provides recommendations and feedback to redress unfair practices. He acts as a form of oversight, with the goal of ensuring fair treatment of constituent groups.

This reduces the chance unfairness will occur and, in cases where an ombudsman finds a complaint justified, allows for corrective measures. The capacity to make recommendations is valuable because it improves policy and practice within an organization and can prevent similar complaints. With fairer, more effective policies, an institution spends less time and fewer resources responding directly to complaints.

An ombudsman can help to improve an organization’s capacity to resolve complaints informally by offering dispute-resolution alternatives and assisting the disputing parties. This can occur informally through discussions and quiet intervention or through negotiation, shuttle diplomacy or mediation.

An ombudsman often assists individuals to articulate and present their concerns, and helps them identify realistic outcomes to complaints. At other times, he advises an organization on how to appropriately respond to complaints.

Activities leading to informal resolutions are largely unseen but are an important component of ombuds work. They can help decrease anger and play an important role in handling emotional situations by providing an outlet where complainants can vent their emotions and create constructive plans to deal with the issues.

The ombudsman can also help to reframe issues, carry messages between parties and allow people to feel someone has listened and understood. De-escalating conflicts allows parties in a dispute to focus on the issues rather than emotional turmoil.

Ombuds offices often play an important role through outreach and educational activities at an organization. Many offer workshops in conflict resolution, communication and fairness education as an important component of their conflict-prevention activities. Tracking complaint trends and advising management of emerging issues can provide an early warning for management and allow for timely, corrective action.

Most ombuds offices publish annual reports on activities of the office along with frequent reports on trends and systemic observations for senior managers and officials. These are an opportunity for the broader organization to learn from the cases the office has received.

The existence of an ombudsman, with the mandate and resources to be effective, and the work of the ombudsman demonstrate an institution or organization is committed to treating its constituents fairly — this is a valuable message for any organization to pass on to employees and customers.

Ian Darling is president of the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman and a new home buyer ombudsman at Tarion Warranty in Toronto. He can be reached at [email protected] or for more information, visit Suzanne Belson is chairperson of the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman education and training committee, a senior investigator at the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces ombudsman. She can be reached at [email protected].

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