The Ombuds Story

Originated about 200 years ago in Sweden, an ombudsman was a government official charged to serve as an advocate for citizens with complaints or problems with government. They are sometimes called “classic” ombudsmen and serve today in various government positions in the United States and around the world.

Private (i.e., non-government) ombudsmen began appearing in the United States in the 1960s, mostly in hospitals and at universities in response to campus unrest. Over the next several decades large corporations and other institutions, such as newspapers, began appointing ombudsmen or establishing ombudsman offices. Those serving in the private sector are called organizational ombudsmen.

Reaction to recent major corporate and financial scandals has accelerated the ombudsman movement. In 2005, some groups merged to form the International Ombudsman Association. IOA has promulgated a Code of Ethics and Standard of Practice for the profession. In year 2010 Charles L. Howard produced “The Organizational Ombudsman” (under the auspices of the American Bar Association’s Dispute Resolution Section), a comprehensive treatment of the subject.

There are no licensing or other requirements for ombudsmen, nor any uniform definition or description of what they do. Howard says that they operate under the principles of independence, neutrality, confidentiality and informality, and that their work can be distilled into these broad categories: (1) communications and outreach, (2) issue resolution and identification of areas for systemic change and (3) issue prevention. However, “most of the everyday work of an ombuds is involved in issue resolution” and serving as an information resource for the company’s various constituencies, according to Howard.

The current edition of the Corporate Legal Compliance Handbook states: “Whether the search for the ombudsman is internal or external, there are certain characteristics that are important for the candidates…Often, mediation and facilitation skills are valuable traits for the ombudsman. Most important, the ombudsperson must be a skilled listener and…have a reputation of being trustworthy and credible.”

To address the perceived gender issue with the term “ombudsman,” some use the term “ombudsperson.” More are coming to use simply “ombuds.”