CPR Employment Disputes Committee: Ombud’s Role in Addressing Worker Complaints Is Analyzed

By Daneisha LaTorre

Last month, CPR’s Employment Disputes Committee presented a Zoom discussion highlighting ombuds programs. The panel focused on how ombuds are set up, the services they provide, and their roles within organizations.

Natalie C. Chan, an associate in Sidley Austin’s Chicago office, moderated the June 16 discussion between Joan C. Waters, the University Ombuds Officer at Columbia University in New York, and Timothy Shore, former ombuds at Pfizer Inc.

The event began with a short presentation introduced by the CPR committee chair, Aaron Warshaw, a shareholder in the New York office of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, on CPR’s recently released Administered Employment Arbitration Rules, which are available here.

A rules discussion was led by veteran committee members Alfred G. Feliu, a neutral based in New Rochelle, N.Y.; Christopher C. Murray, a shareholder in the Indianapolis office of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart’s Indianapolis office, and Wayne N. Outten, chair and founding partner of New York’s Outten & Golden. It highlighted Rule 1.4 (Due Process Protections) and Rules 3.12-3.13 (Joinder and Consolidation).

The due process rule is in place to provide fairness, and link to the separate Due Process Protections established by CPR, which can be found at https://bit.ly/3hELLQa.  

CPR also created an innovative procedure through the joinder and consolidation rule, which uses an Administrative Arbitrator to address those issues.

The rules were developed by counsel from the plaintiff’s bar, in-house employment counsel, corporate defense attorneys, and neutrals to ensure fairness throughout the rules. For example, the rules provide detailed guidance to address cases where a party has refused to pay required fees, including guidance on preserving the rights of the defaulting party. The rules also provide factors to consider for discovery, early disposition and remote hearings.

The discussion noted that the rules are specifically designed to avoid ambiguity and interpretative disputes.

The discussion also emphasized the importance of the arbitration rules on addressing imbalances between employees and employers. A CPR Speaks post devoted to the rules can be found here.

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After the arbitration rules presentation, Natalie Chan opened the discussion about ombuds programs, their function, and their benefits . Panelists Joan Waters and Tim Shore provided insight into their experience as ombuds from an academic and corporate perspective.

An ombuds is an official appointed to hear individual concerns regarding issues that may arise in the workplace—Shore emphasized the session’s focus on “organizational ombuds,” as opposed to, say, consumer advocate ombuds jobs. In comparison to human resources professionals, ombuds have an obligation to keep the employee information provided confidential. This method creates a safe space and helps to surface workplace conflict or concerns.

As an ombuds in academia, Joan Waters explained that her role at Columbia University is to serve faculty, students, staff, and any affiliates connected to the institution, including parents and alumni, to hear concerns, act as a referral source and help with conflict negotiation.

Waters explained confidentiality is the most significant contributor to her work. As an ombuds, Waters is not authorized to accept notice on behalf of the university or to keep records of any interaction with the individuals who seek guidance. Specifically, individual’s identities are not disclosed unless there is an imminent risk of serious harm. Waters explained that if an ombuds is presented with information that seems to cause an imminent risk of harming an employee, she can use her discretion to disclose the information.

Tim Shore provided perspective on the responsibilities and role of a corporate ombuds. In his former longtime role at Pfizer—where he was the company’s first ombuds–Shore had the responsibility to oversee the operations of the Ombuds Office.  In this capacity, Shore reported administratively to the chief compliance officer but had direct access to the company’s chief executive officer and board of directors.

Shore explained that an ombuds provides employees with a place that they can raise issues confidentially.

Ombuds help individuals get to the roots of their issues.  If appropriate, the ombuds can also help workers understand the formal steps to be taken if the employee decides that he or she wants to formally report the issue to the company. The process allows employees to control their conflicts and decide if and how that want to take steps to resolve the matter.

To help attendees better understand ombuds programs, moderator Natalie Chan proposed a hypothetical from an employee’s perspective, stating on behalf of a complainant, “I just feel like I’m not being treated properly. My manager doesn’t seem to take my suggestions seriously . . . and I don’t like his tone.  . . . I feel like my male counterpart in the same department is getting preferential treatment and better opportunities.”

Joan Waters explained that the hypothetical is typical of what she often hears from employees. As an ombuds, the mission includes helping employees refine their concerns and understand the process of resolving their dispute. Shore explained that often, people will label their issues, such as, “I’m being bullied” or “I’m being discriminated against,” instead of explaining in detail the core issues at hand.

The ombuds’ goal, said Shore, is to identify the specific issues an employee is facing and help provide the employee with the tools he or she needs to resolve those issues.   During these conversations, ombuds may walk employees through constructive meetings with their managers about their issues or discussing the formal internal process if an employee wants to escalate the situation.  

The question of whether ombuds must report potential discrimination claims that come to their attention was raised. The panelists explained that an ombuds is precluded from reporting unless there is an imminent risk of serious harm.

As ombuds, however, their mission is never to let an employee walk out of the office without a plan to resolve the situation, especially when dealing with a discrimination or harassment issue.

Waters stated that her goal when individuals discuss their situations is to help them specifically identify the problem. She believed once employees understood their options, the individuals would be better equipped to move forward with their concerns if they choose.  

Shore stated that his former organization does not track the specific identity of individuals.  But, he reported, it does track demographic information such as race or gender of the individuals that came to the ombuds office.  This allows the ombuds office to identify trends across the organization.  When the data reveals a pattern in a location or department, an ombuds can bring that issue to the attention of the appropriate leadership without revealing the identity of any of the individuals involved.

Shore also stated that the employee’s perceptions should not be ignored. He said that perceptions are real, and if there are numbers of employees with the same perception, the problems the perception reveal must be addressed.

Shore added that formal employment claims have declined at the company since the launch of Pfizer’s ombuds program. Additionally, he emphasized the cost of an ombuds resolving an employee dispute is a fraction of the time and money spent resolving more formal claims.   

Shore said that, despite their effectiveness, ombuds programs are not common in corporations, with less than 10% of U.S. companies having a program.  

Finally, panelists highlighted training programs for individuals interested in becoming ombuds. Both panelists suggested training from the International Ombudsman Association. Waters also suggested Columbia University’s masters’ program in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution.

To learn more about ombuds, Tim Shore has a video on the CPR Speaks blog. Additionally, for training opportunities, you can access the Columbia Ombuds Office masters’ program here and IOA training here.

The June 16 CPR Employment Disputes Committee video on the panel discussion can be viewed by individuals at CPR members after logging into CPR’s website here.

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The author, entering her second year at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University School of Law, was a CPR 2021 Summer Intern.

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