What does the Office of the Ombuds do?

The Office of the 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 the 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, colleges and universities. Generally, as the workforce became more diverse, such organizations and those employed there found an Office of the Ombuds useful in promoting communication, resolving disputes and making the climate more inclusive. We use the term ombuds as a shortened, gender-free form of both ombudsman and ombudswoman.

What is distinctive about the Office of the Ombuds?

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 in St. Louis.

  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 and free-standing. It is not a part of and does not report to Human Resources, the executive vice chancellor and general counsel or any dean’s office. Personnel in the ombuds office are appointed by the university provost 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 Office of the Ombuds intended to serve?

The Danforth Campus ombuds office is intended to serve all faculty members with appointments on the Danforth Campus, whether tenured or untenured.

When should I go to the Office of the Ombuds?

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, you can make an appointment with the ombuds.

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

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 compliance with relevant public laws and regulations or university policies.

What can the Office of the Ombuds 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.