10 Questions about the Ombuds for Scaling Companies

A brief intro to a little-known role

Dynamic, scaling tech companies want to address hard people problems without adding layers of bureaucratic process. For them, the agility and effectiveness of a role called the ombudsman — or “ombuds” for short — is highly relevant.

Unfortunately, most people haven’t heard about it and how it can be helpful. To remedy this, here are answers to 10 questions about the role.

What is an ombuds?

The ombuds is a confidential, independent resource that helps resolve difficult or sensitive concerns that might not surface through normal channels. As the ombuds serves visitors, the ombuds regularly provides aggregated, anonymized insights to the company on important trends.

(The name comes from Scandinavia. The “ombuds for scaling companies” is an evolution of the organizational ombudsman, standardized through the International Ombudsman Association.)

What is the difference between ombudsing and HR functions?

The ombuds provides a complementary but distinct function to HR:

  • Only the ombuds can guarantee confidentiality and the promise not to take action without the consent of the visitor, even for complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination (with the exception of an imminent threat of physical harm). Of course, the ombuds role needs to be properly set up legally and operationally for this.
  • More generally, the ombuds can also promise independence from the company’s leadership and its business interests.
  • However, the ombuds partners closely with HR to remain up-to-date on policies, people, and other resources inside the company, without compromising ombuds independence.

What is the difference between ombudsing and counseling?

  • Generally, the ombuds is more focused on resolving a discrete issue and providing signal on systemic concerns, not to provide therapy.
  • The ombuds is also embedded into the culture of the company, with direct access to the highest level of leadership for resolution of issues and to provide signal on important trends.

What is the difference between ombudsing and an EAP (employee assistance program)?

  • The ombuds provides high-quality, qualitative insights to the company on regular basis. EAPs generally do not serve this role.
  • Unlike an EAP, the ombuds is embedded into the culture of the company, and works to resolve issues with a deep understanding of the organization.
  • The Ombuds specializes in addressing the needs of highly dynamic, fast-growing tech companies, particularly the challenges of scaling strong cultures of trust as you grow.
  • Though distinct, the ombuds may help visitors navigate to a company’s EAP as an available resource as part of the ombuds’ navigation role.

How the ombuds helps the company

Catch surprises before they bite: Day-to-day, the ombuds helps team members think productively about their concerns in a low-risk, confidential space. The ombuds can also facilitate conversations and other informal processes. These outlets allow a rapidly scaling company to deal constructively with issues that might otherwise never surface — and before they fester or explode.

Get signal on cultural and systemic weak spots as the company scales: Periodically, the ombuds provides aggregated, de-identified trends to leadership on issues are brought to the ombuds. As the company scales, this data provides valuable insights on “fail cases” arising from systemic problems that company should be aware of and troubleshoot as it scales.

Bridge trust gaps: As a company grows, its “connective tissue” of trust unavoidably becomes diluted. The ombuds serves as a helpful “half-step” that people can trust simply by virtue of its structural independence. From there, the ombuds encourages “full-steps” to resolve issues proactively, directly, and in a way aligned with the company’s values.

Signal your commitment to your values: The existence and awareness of the ombuds builds trust that the company cares about its values, even in situations that put its people in the most vulnerable, sticky situations.

How the ombuds helps visitors

Have somewhere to turn: For some important concerns, people won’t use resources within the company — they feel too vulnerable. But people aren’t sure that help outside the company can be objective, relevant, or impactful. The ombuds offers a low-risk channel that guarantees confidentiality and independence, but with a person fully embedded and impactful within the company.

Get skilled help: The ombuds should be — and through Cylinder Project always is — highly skilled in methods for effective conflict resolution, creative problem-solving, and values-based decision-making. The ombuds also fully integrates into the organization and with its leadership, allowing the role to help in a way that is effective and relevant to the company’s structure, norms, and values.

Know that signal will get to leadership: Sometimes people in difficult situations simply hope that something similar doesn’t happen again to someone else in the company. The ombuds can signal those concerns in its aggregated, anonymized reports to relevant leadership.

More ways the ombuds can help

Think of the ombuds as a multi-purpose tool that can be useful wherever you need expert people skills, with a strong understanding of your company, within a guarantee of confidentiality and independence. Thus the ombuds can also offer:

  • Training — e.g. conflict management for team leads, effective empathy, fairness/trust for team leads, giving and receiving feedback
  • Working with teams — e.g. coaching, facilitating, working through tension or disagreement, feedback
  • Research — e.g. confidential follow-ups to get high-quality, qualitative data on Pulse survey results
  • Systems and organizational design — conflict management systems, responsive organizations

Can you walk me through a typical ombuds visit?

Sure. It starts when someone has an issue where they need to talk to someone who can guarantee confidentiality, independence, impartiality, and won’t act without their consent. They’ll set up a time to speak confidentially with the ombuds, where the ombuds will typically help the visitor:

  • Clarify the issues at stake
  • Uncover the visitor’s core interests, and the interests of others
  • Brainstorm and then evaluate options, and
  • Coach the visitor on any difficult conversations that they might have to have.

Typically, after speaking with the ombuds, visitors feel confident that they can address their issue directly and proactively, in a way aligned with company values, and through the normal channels of resolution within the company — e.g. a lead, lead of lead, or HR.

In some cases, if the visitor requests it, the ombuds can also help:

  • Look informally into policies, procedures, or decisions, and
  • Facilitate a voluntary conversation with others (with the permission of all involved).

Periodically, the ombuds will aggregate the concerns of visitors over a given period, and prepare a report identifying alerts and possible systemic issues for leadership to address. This report is presented to the leadership and debriefed.

What are some typical use cases?

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of some concerns where people find a confidential, informal half-step to be useful:

  • Lead-report relationships
  • Performance evaluations
  • Team/colleague relationships
  • Sexual harassment/discrimination
  • Physical and mental health
  • Family crisis impacting work
  • Work-life balance
  • Growth/feeling stuck
  • Office conditions
  • Legal, regulatory, financial and compliance
  • Resourcing
  • Relocation
  • Thinking about leaving
  • Compensation
  • Impact of leadership decisions / policies
  • Culture, values, norms, ethics

What are some examples of insights you might surface?

The ombuds surfaces insights as it sees them — the ombuds lets the patterns reveal themselves. Here are some examples of some hypothetical headlines:

  • “Several incidents reinforce a perception of cultural hypocrisy.” Several visitors may recount incidents in which the company’s stated values seemed to be violated, with no explanation or consequences — undermining trust in leadership’s commitment to those values. The ombuds can describe the general nature of such incidents and the values in question to allow leadership to address them.
  • “The opacity of a given process leads to costly politicking.” Several visitors may have described how they seem to spend more time playing off the biases of certain influencers than focusing on the merits. The ombuds can describe what parts of the process incentivize this behavior from these visitors’ point of view, allowing relevant parties to troubleshoot.
  • “There is insufficient awareness of an available resource.” Several visitors may have come in with questions about resources that they are unwilling to ask about — for example, mental health resources. The ombuds can help troubleshoot why these visitors were not aware of them.

Got people problems? Beyond HR, consider establishing an ombuds, especially if your company is scaling fast.

Seanan Fong is the founder of Cylinder Project, where he helps startups and teams turn disagreements and grievances into insights and learning. His practice combines expertise in conflict resolution with a background focusing on tech startups. He is based in the Bay Area.

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