HR Magazine: Someone to Listen


Jan 1, 2003
HR Magazine, January 2003

Vol. 48, No. 1

From the Beginning

Organizational ombuds have been on payrolls in the United States since the 1960s, but they're still relatively rare. An estimated 500 ombudsmen work at more than 200 universities and colleges, 30 federal agencies and large companies such as Kodak, Coca-Cola Enterprises and Shell Oil Co.

Some employers have established ombudsman offices as part of legal settlements. In 1996, Texaco (which became ChevronTexaco in 2001) agreed to create an ombudsperson program as part of its $176 million settlement of a racial discrimination suit. But most companies create ombuds programs voluntarily, often as part of a broader alternative dispute resolution program, for a variety of reasons: to resolve difficult problems, to improve employee morale and productivity, to forestall litigation.

Why is the ombudsman profession so small? Employment experts say most organizations conclude they can resolve disputes in other ways, using channels such as HR or mediation and arbitration to solve problems before they get big enough to go to court.

"Different organizations have different cultures" and, as a result, different ways of resolving in-house disputes, says Douglas B. Mishkin, an attorney at Patton Boggs LLP in Washington, D.C. In many cases, the HR department is the starting point.

In addition, some employers have "natural ombuds," employees who take on the role sans title, says Janis Schonauer, the ombudsman at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. They are "wise people who know the power structure and how to influence decisions," she explains.

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