Ombuds Impartiality and Multipartiality Explained



This is the third in a series of posts exploring the four ethical principles that serve as the foundation of the practice of an organizational ombuds: informality, independence, impartiality, and confidentiality. Today, I will share some thoughts on what impartiality means for ombuds and those who use their offices.

The International Ombuds Association’s Code of Ethics construes impartiality to mean that the Ombuds “as a designated neutral, remains unaligned and impartial. The Ombuds does not engage in any situation which could create a conflict of interest.”

Impartiality and neutrality have several dimensions. The first is structural: the Ombuds Office is situated so that the Ombuds is not affiliated with any compliance function of the university. This is an important distinction. The first concern of those who work in compliance is, by design and necessity, ensuring compliance. But there may be instances when someone needs to speak with a neutral party whose prime directive is not to ensure whether their visitor or others are fully compliant with regulations but rather to help them reflect on how to proceed in a situation. For that reason, it makes sense for the Ombuds not to have any compliance function, as they can impartially focus on assisting those who visit the office, rather than determining if they may be a party to a violation of procedure. The structural neutrality of the Ombuds Office is linked directly to its informality.

The IOA Code of Ethics elaborates that the Ombuds must be not only neutral and impartial, but also “unaligned.” Each of those words carries a particular shade of adjacent meanings. “Neutral” implies not taking sides in a conflict, carrying a geo-political flavor; a neutral party may not actively intervene to resolve a conflict, but they could potentially have an interest in an outcome or may ultimately join it, as was seen in the United States’ policy of “armed neutrality” before it entered World War One.

“Unaligned” seems closely related to “neutral,” with the added dimension that the Ombuds is not only neutral in conflicts, but is also not aligned with any party that is. This is why it is important for the Ombuds Office to remain independent in structure, function, and perception.

“Impartial” requires that the Ombuds does not have a stake in the outcome, and will not try to engineer any particular resolution. It suggests that there is a level of objectivity here, and that the Ombuds is able to put aside personal experiences, biases, and preconceptions to listen to each visitor. More importantly, the Ombuds must safeguard against imposing their own values when talking a visitor through potential resolutions. For this reason, a good Ombuds should actively work to view the conflict through the eyes of their visitor.

Seeing a conflict only through your own experiences is dangerous, because what works in one situation may not in another. For example, the UNLV Ombuds Office is open to a range of visitors, including academic faculty, administrative faculty, classified staff, and students. Members of each of these groups have their own vulnerabilities. The most obvious example: imagine someone seeking advice on how to manage a conflict with their direct supervisor. A tenured full professor may have a much larger tolerance for confrontation than an untenured assistant professor or professor in residence, and an administrative faculty member and classified employee would each have their own concerns about job security. Added to that, exclusive of organizational role everyone has their own tolerance for risk and comfort with assertiveness. It would be a mistake to assume that everyone approaches a conflict with the same toolkit, or willingness to use the tools at their disposal.

While the IOA officially champions impartiality, many in the community feel that, as a concept, impartiality doesn’t fully encapsulate what ombuds do in practice. They prefer to say that they are “multipartial,” meaning that they seek positive outcomes for everyone in a conflict and for the community as a whole. Although I am still in the first year of my Ombuds practice, I see the virtue in this approach, and it guides my work.

For me, being multipartial means, first and foremost, that I can offer support to all those who come to see me. When I help multiple parties work through a conflict, I don’t pick sides or choose who to advocate for; rather I try to help each person see the conflict through differing perspectives and to consider all possible options. Even if I might be convinced that one particular resolution might be “the best,” I wouldn’t seek to impose it because, if the parties weren’t ready for it, it probably won’t be sustainable.

Multipartiality means that the Ombuds cannot advocate for individuals because they must be available to support all parties to the conflict. That doesn’t mean that someone visiting the office won’t get the Ombuds’ undivided attention and full support; but it does mean that the Ombuds can’t act as your personal representative, advocate, or negotiator. Instead, the goal is give those who visit the office the support and coaching they need to effectively advocate for themselves.

In practical terms, multipartiality means that the Ombuds won’t pick and choose whether to advocate for you or not, but that when you visit the office you will be able to discuss a range of options and have a space in which you can have a candid discussion about possible outcomes. Maybe you won’t have someone from the office speaking for you when you confront the person you have been having issues with, but neither will the other party—and you both might have the advantage of the third-party perspective the Ombuds can provide.

The last benefit of a neutral and multipartial approach is that it situates the Ombuds to consider the impact of issues not just on those immediately involved, but their relevance to the entire community. Two people may be ensnared in a conflict, but that dispute almost always affects others, whether it is co-workers, students, or the institution as a whole. When helping others resolve their conflicts, the Ombuds must appreciate the impact of any possible changes on those not in the room.

Finally, multipartiality means that, whatever your concern, the Ombuds Office is available to you. Maybe you are in a conflict and don’t know where to go. Maybe you just have a nagging suspicion that things should be better. If you would like to speak with an impartial voice in a confidential setting that is completely distinct from any formal process, disciplinary or otherwise, do not hesitate to make an appointment with the Ombuds. Our door is open.


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