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Office disputes get a new referee

When whistleblowers go to the media or lawyers, the results can be disastrous for an organization. Think of Edward Snowden and the N.S.A.

And even smaller employee concerns, like discrimination lawsuits, usually cost companies hundreds of thousands of dollars. These days, more and more corporations are turning to organizational ombudsmen. They allow employees to talk about workplace issues confidentially, before things escalate.

Tim Shore runs the organizational ombudsmen office at Pfizer. I met him at the pharmaceutical giant's Manhattan campus. His office looks a bit like an uptown therapist's -- black leather couches, soothing green walls.

“We tried to get sort of a zen-like feeling,” he explains. “There's an orchid on the table.”

I test him out with a scenario. He turns on a white noise machine for extra privacy.

“Say I was an employee,” I propose, “and I came to you and said, 'My office mate breathes really heavily. They breathe so loudly that I get distracted from my work.' What would you say to me?”

“So keep in mind,” he says, “that this is somebody that you're sharing an office with every day. So you would think that you could have just a very candid conversation with that person. So we would actually go through it.”

He had me practice what I could say. Shore plays the heavy breather. “So your office mate might be embarrassed,” he says, “and say, 'Oh my gosh I didn't realize that, I 'm so sorry I’ll try to be more aware of it.' Or he might get angry and say, 'Hey you know what? I have a medical issue and it's none of your business.'”

Shore says just letting people practice these kinds of conversations, it makes them less scary. And it makes small disputes between coworkers go a lot smoother.

Pfizer opened this organizational ombudsmen office two and a half years ago. Shore says it brings problems forward that the company might not otherwise know about. He says he sees the people who don't feel comfortable with the typical reporting channels.

“They don't want their name on a file,” he says, “they don't want to be part of an investigation, they don't want to be part of that formal process. This allows them to come forward with information, and provide that information to the company, so that the company has an opportunity to do something about it.”

The first wave of corporate organizational ombudsmen programs came as a reaction to business scandals back in the eighties and nineties. Anamaris Cousins Price is president of the International Ombudsman Association, which has a little over 700 members. She's also an organizational ombudsman at Halliburton. The company started its program two decades ago, after an employee sued over a problem with coworker. Cousins couldn't go into details.

“The story goes,” she says, “that there was an issue that was raised and it cost the company about half a million dollars.”

Halliburton wanted its people to have an option for addressing interpersonal issues, outside of court. So they started the office. A recent study found the percent of Fortune 1000 companies with organizational ombudsmen has grown 40 percent since the late 1990s. Cousins Price points out that the American workforce is getting more diverse.

“If you're dealing with people of different ages,” she says, “of different cultural backgrounds, just people, different people, at some point you'll need an ombuds. I mean I ombuds with my husband at home all the time.”

Chuck Howard is a lawyer in Hartford, Conn. He specializes in organizational ombudsmen programs. He's also author of the book, "The Organizational Ombudsman: Origins, Roles, and Operations – A Legal Guide." Howard sees ombuds as especially helpful for would-be whistleblowers. Typically, a whistleblower would take her issue to a media outlet, or to court. But organizational ombudsmen give you the option to talk to someone within your company, someone who's not your boss. Howard says whistleblower protection laws do exist, but for most people, being a whistleblower just doesn't pay.

“The data shows,” Howard says, “that most people never get a bounty. And if you're labeled as a whistleblower, it sets you apart. It's very hard, both for the employee and the company.” He says an organizational ombudsmen can help make sure a problem gets addressed, without the messenger getting stuck with the title of office troublemaker.

About the author

Audrey Quinn is a reporter in New York City.

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