In fiction and fantasy, an origin story gives the background of a character, often giving the audience glimpses of their personal history from the character’s perspective. These stories reveal how the person became who they are and sometimes more importantly, why. A character’s journey can tell us so many things: what they value, fear, avoid, or disdain. This evolution is not reserved for action heroes or novel antagonists. Each of us approaches our lives and livelihoods based on our own origin story. For those who make their livelihood as an Ombuds, finding an identity amongst the traditional classifications(e.g., organizational, academic, classical) is often simultaneous with having to translate that identity to the constituencies in which they practice.
As the field expands (and contracts) there is an opportunity for reflection and possibly refinement. Here we make a business case for discovering the origins of the Ombuds practice from a people perspective. We do this by lending voice to Ombuds themselves to reveal possible archetypes of the people behind the practice and promote more balance between professional consensus and inclusion of individual practices.
It is well known within the field that as originally defined, Ombuds (or Ombudsman, or Umboth) is a party commissioned to serve as a third party. Many modern variations of this exist. In practice, it starts with the basic tenets of confidentiality, impartiality and independence. Some of those who have helped define the foundational tenets of the current (domestic) Ombuds field have described this basic blueprint.
However, what about Ombuds themselves? Where does the internal expertise come from beyond the definition of what we do and the criteria for our practice? A certain, even, temperament is key. Perhaps also the need to “think fast and slow”; to tap into a wicked mix of instinct and deliberation without any formal training in doing so. These characteristics are sometimes captured in job descriptions or desirable skills but are not hard requirements. Yet, it can seem impossible to do the job well without them. The following narratives provide insights of how the authors entered the field of “ombudsing” and carries forward a solicitation to determine what qualities become essential to the practice. In other words, in starting to distill qualitative Ombuds characteristics, we start with background, add personal history and fill in the details until a consistent practice emerges.
Dr. Bina Patel, Ombudsman & Conflict Resolution Consultant
Entering the workforce almost fifteen years ago, my first real job was in corporate America’s international supply chain and trade. There, I witnessed the unfortunate spectacle of over
5,000 employees getting laid off. I was relieved to be spared especially because I sought to move forward with a degree while gaining work experience. Over time, I became increasingly aware and bothered by how people were treated by organizations. A few years later, I entered a new job and enrolled in my doctoral program to be hired to replace a manager who was due to retire after twenty five years of service but was instead fired to avoid granting him his retirement package. The lack of consideration and appreciation was unfathomable and led me to promise myself to a profession that helped, whatever that meant.
When I first landed into the organizational ombudsman position with a background in global business and experience in healthcare fraud mediations and policy, I truly was not aware of what I was getting myself into. After the first six months of working with a workforce that was bound by rules, strong adherence to policies, and needed much care due to a major re‐org in the organization (the third one in two years), I found myself working hard to restore trust. As an outsider coming into an organization I recognized the need for employees to have their voices heard in safe space. This is something I knew I could offer and was the beginning of a new chapter in my career.
Deanna Yuille Banford, Organizational Ombudsman
Rumor has it I was a playground mediator. My background includes formal education in psychology, policy, and conflict resolution. My professional endeavors have involved policy, education and business. I was mentored by an Advocate Ombuds. Advocates have an understandably different sense of neutrality. I held my first Ombuds position working in a Classical office, where an Ombuds can be more furtive as they investigate concerns. I carry each of these principles with me to my current practice as an Organizational Ombuds. Bringing it all together, my personal practice oscillates between emotion and logic. Yet, none of these experiences alone override how I engage; it is a balance.
For every Ombuds, there is an origin story that leads to how they currency practice. However, without a prescriptive path in these stories, where is the intersection of the person and the practice? Potential areas of overlap include education, training, skills, and qualitative characteristics. What these are is to be determined as the profession presumably grows to incorporate those from a variety of backgrounds ranging from social work, education, psychology, accounting and business, to conflict resolution and peacekeeping, law, and much more. We will see the diversity of our practice expand in nontraditional ways. The charge before us is to better understand who we are and how we arrived to more confidently navigate the future.