What does the Office of Ombuds do?

The Office of Ombuds exists to assist faculty members, informally and confidentially, in understanding and resolving a variety of workplace issues. Such issues may range from perceptions of unfair or discriminatory treatment to a desire to better understand formal complaint procedures to a concern about apparently unethical or unprofessional practices. In addition, the Office of Ombuds reports, without identifying information, statistical data or trends showing particular problems, so that University officials can take corrective action or otherwise improve the situation.

Ombuds? Why such an unusual name?

The Office name “Ombuds” is derived from the Swedish “Ombudsman,” originally a government official who investigated citizen complaints against government officials. In this country the function has been modified and used in a variety of organizational settings including government agencies, corporations, and colleges and universities. Generally, as the workforce became more diverse, such organizations and those employed there found the Office of Ombuds useful in promoting communication, resolving disputes, and making the climate more inclusive. We use the term Ombuds as simply a shortened, gender-free form of both ombudsman and ombudswoman.

What is distinctive about the Ombuds Office?

Four principles—Confidentiality, Independence, Neutrality, and Informality—are of crucial importance in the effective functioning of the Ombuds Office. Taken together, these four principles set the Ombuds Office apart from any other University service or unit. The four principles together make the Office a special part of Washington University.

  1. Confidentiality is vital. Neither the names of visitors nor their concerns will be divulged outside the Office without express permission. Visitors can rest assured that the questions and issues they bring to the Ombuds Office will go no further without their explicit approval. The only exceptions would occur in the rare situation when there is an imminent risk of serious physical harm occurring without prompt direct intervention by appropriate personnel or when a court orders disclosure of information, despite the University’s effort to maintain the confidentiality of communications with the Ombuds Office.
  2. The Ombuds Office is independent, free standing. It is not a part of and does not report to Human Resources, General Counsel, or the Executive Faculty. Personnel in the Ombuds Office are appointed by the Dean of the School of Medicine but function independently of that office. Of course, the Ombuds Office cannot make decisions for these administrators nor can it override their decisions and policies. But where and when appropriate the Ombuds Office can assist in explaining, negotiating, and mediating. Personnel in the Ombuds Office have direct access to the senior administrators of the University. Because of its independence, the Ombuds Office is not authorized to receive official notice for the University.
  3. The Ombuds Office is neutral and impartial. It does not take sides. The mission of the Ombuds is to listen, to understand, to explain, to discuss options, to weigh alternatives, and to point out possibilities and consequences.
  4. The Ombuds Office is informal and conversational. It keeps few records and makes only statistical reports that may illuminate trends or continuing concerns. Its primary mission is to help individuals, confidentially, one at a time.

Who is the Ombuds Office intended to serve?

In its initial pilot phase the Ombuds Office is intended to serve all faculty members with appointments on the investigator, clinical and research tracks at the School of Medicine.

When should I go to the Ombuds Office?

If you want or need to discuss a sensitive issue or question regarding your assignment or employment. If you need a question answered, but don’t know whom to ask. If you think you may have been treated unfairly or arbitrarily. If you become aware of practices that you think are questionable, but don’t know whom to tell or don’t want to be involved. If you need help communicating productively with a co-worker or supervisor.

What concerns are likely to be brought to the Ombuds Office?

Perceived or apparent inequities in assignments, perquisites, or pay. Concerns about inappropriate behavior or speech, particularly as they affect workplace conditions. Questions about performance evaluation, promotion, and retention. Concerns about practices risking or adversely affecting health and safety. Concerns about authorship or intellectual property. Concerns about compliance with relevant public laws and regulations or University policies.

What can the Ombuds Office not do?

The Ombuds Office cannot give you legal advice nor can it testify on your behalf in legal proceedings. The Ombuds Office cannot receive notice on behalf of the University. The Ombuds Office cannot require any person at the University to take action to resolve issues brought to the Ombuds. The Ombuds Office cannot take part in formal appeal or grievance procedures. The Ombuds Office will not undertake formal investigations. It will try to find answers to questions to assist in the informal resolution of difficulties and in doing so may engage in informal inquiries to the extent it has the visitor’s permission.