without naming their sources-a factor
that can safeguard against retaliation.
Such confidentiality also can encour-age employees to file complaints inter-nally, which gives companies a chance
to correct problems before they
become full-blown public relations
nightmares. That is important
because Sarbanes-Oxley does not
require employees to file a complaintin-house before contacting an outside
What Is an Ombudsman?
Ombuds offer informal, confidential help for
employees who want their problems addressed but not
Employees "want to handle their situation themselves,
but they're stuck," says Deborah Cardillo, corporate
tions, tension with the boss or boorish
workplace behavior. Complaints of
unfair treatment are common, as are
relationship issues and allegations ofabuse of power. They may deal with
circumstances that violate the law or
Most ombuds do not deal with
workers' compensation or
Wilbur Hicks, ombuds-
man for Shell Oil Co.'s Houston-based
U.S. operations. They also do not get
involved in complaints from union mem-
who follow the dispute resolution proce-dures in their collective bargaining agreements. Infact, ombuds who intervene in union-shop conflicts could
be accused of unfair labor practices, says Howard Gadlin,ombudsman at the National Institutes of Health in Bethes-
ft's dangerous to
can handle theh
for Eastman Kodak Co., based in
Rochester, N.Y. The ombudsman's job, she says, is "to get
"A great deal of what we do," Cardillo says, is explain
to employees how their complaints or allegations can be
dealt with and "make it easier [for employees] to go
through the formal system" if they wish.
Ombuds deal with a variety of complaints, including
employees' chagrin over small pay raises or missed promo-
HR Magazine January 2003
Sword of Confidentiality
Most ombuds are hired by and report to a top officer, usu-
ally the chief executive, but they don't take orders from
the executive suite. Ombuds cite their independence from
management as an advantage.
"You can't be seen as being in anybody's pocket," says
who reports to Kodak's compliance officer and
has access to the CEO.
Ombuds say their independence helps
them maintain neutrality. "The ombuds is an
advocate for a fair process, not an advocate
on behalf of individuals or the institution,"
says Gordon Halfacre, the ombuds for facul-ty and graduate students at Clemson Univer-
sity in Clemson, S.C.
"We're most effective as neutrals," says
Hicks.Independence also helps ombuds maintain
confidentiality, which is a key element of the
Ombuds pledge to never divulge their
visitors' identities or concerns. Some, like
Halfacre, don't even take notes on individual