The Organizational Ombuds Office: A Safe Haven for Whistleblowers
by Bina Patel, PhD
It was my first whistleblower case as an organizational ombudsman. Two employees came to my office with concerns of a colleague who was potentially sharing mission information with an external party. As an organizational ombudsman, I was obligated to report potential whistleblower related concerns to the Office of Legal Counsel (OGL). I listened attentively to both inquirers. In fact, my concern was not what they were reporting, but that the organization had recently participated in a whistleblower training and the level of paranoia in the organization was quite high. With that being said, I continued to listen to both employees.
I was listening for facts. I was looking for patterns in their stories. But it was complicated. I listened without interruption, observing their body language and recognized the employees’ concerns were not only legitimate but it was difficult to prove what may have been happening. At this point, an hour into the conversation, I reminded the inquirers of my obligation to report them as they were seeking advise of how to report it. In fact, I reminded them of the protocol to report their issues to the security office. Employees had to report their concerns to Security, while I had to go to OGL. Either way, all parties would be informed. I walked both inquirers to the security office and informed the chief of the purpose of our visit. Thereafter, I went straight upstairs and reported it to OGL. OGL and Security met, discussed it with the Center’s senior leadership and opened an investigation. It was at this point that I stepped out. The issue was no longer in my hands.
It was a busy day. Both employees returned to my office throughout the day concerned with retaliation. I advised them that their meetings were confidential, and their managers would not be notified until after the investigation was completed. And at this point, what I did not share is that everyone in the business unit was being investigated. It was a well-known fact that in our organization, no one was above the rules and policies.
This was the first year the organizational ombudsman’s office had been established in the history of this company. Managers and employees alike relied on the informal line of defense to report all their concerns. My shop was a place where employees not only felt safe but knew I would guide them and their issues well. The entire system had become reliant on the ombuds office to resolve issues. It was a known fact that it “would be wise to check with Bina first before escalating it through the formal channels.” In fact, my senior leadership requested my services before making a major decision. This was because I had the trust of the people and I always ensured policies were applied fairly and equitably applied. I always gave guidance from each lens so that my inquirers including senior leaders could make the best decision for the mission. This was the reputation I had created. But to me it was very important that my office, the ombuds office was valued and utilized.
Whistleblower issues are not a joke and should not be taken lightly, no matter how big or small the issue. And we should be reminded that it takes courage to speak up fraud, waste, and abuse. Most all employees understand that by being a whistleblower they may face retaliation such as job loss, being bullied in the workplace, low performance evaluation, and so much more. As a human being they will experience the emotions of fear, anger, nervousness, being sacred, and lack of sleep for months before reporting. As a result, they will be challenged to focus on their tasks. People who are scared about reporting unethical practices do suffer. Their ethical nature and morals encourage them to speak up, knowing full well of the consequences that may result in career suicide. It is an inner battle they experience for months at a time. Therefore, leaders at all levels of an organization should value the concerns reported by employees. These concerns should not be seen as a challenge, but rather perceived positively and mitigated quickly before the fire breaks.
It is all too easy for individuals whose concerns that are not heard are reported out through social media. Facebook has recently experienced such issues. While the individuals who attempted to report out their concerns were not heard, the world was given insight into the culture of Facebook. As an ombuds and a conflict resolution expert, my question to Mark Z., “Do you and your leaders truly value the workforce?” This is a question that I want answered with sincerity and integrity. Nevertheless, his actions speak louder. Let’s put this into perspective: if Facebook followers are not protected and any type of postings are considered acceptable, then what kind of a culture exists? My second culture to Facebook leaders: “How do you define a healthy culture?”
The depth of talent that Facebook has today is amazing. In fact, the brains of employees at Facebook should be commended and valued. They should not be taken for granted. But with Facebook’s inability to deal with potential whistleblower threats is a strong indication that there is a major cultural issue with Facebook’s senior leaders. Investing in your workforce begins by hiring an ombudsman. Specifically, an internal organizational ombudsman who is a neutral third party that is independent, informal, and impartial. It is a safe space where individuals can report out their issues in a confidential manner. The ombuds nonetheless, should also do right by the workforce and honor their confidentiality, while reporting out themes and patterns of a culture. It is the only way issues can be mitigated and a cultural shift may occur. I propose the following simple strategies to handle whistleblower complaints:
Strategy #1: Establish an internal organizational ombuds office: The benefits of an ombuds are large. In this case, had Facebook established an organizational ombuds office, these whistleblowers may have safely reported their concerns. It would be up to the ombuds to escalate concerns and ensure that employees are not exploited or experience retaliation.
Strategy #2: Establish an anti-retaliation policy: Organizations such as Facebook can establish an effective anti-retaliation policy with a hotline for employees to report their concerns anonymously. This is a step forward to ensure their workforce is protected, retain morale, and brand image. More importantly, when an organization invests in their culture, such issues rarely leak, and talent is not compromised. Right now the entire world is experience the ‘great resignation’. One of the easiest ways to lose good talent is a lack of concern of your workforce. When employees are retaliated against, they will leave. And it is not just any talent that will exit, but your top talent. Right now employees are searching for organizations that truly invest in their people. Enforcing a ‘people first’ culture, organizations can be prevent employees from quitting due to retaliation and toxicity.
Handling whistleblower complaints should always be taken seriously.