Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Graduate Program Holds Panel on Ombudspeople

On February 4th, Columbia University’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution graduate program hosted a career panel, The Ombudsmen Role in Conflict Resolution. The panelists shared their insights on the growing opportunities for ombudsmen.

The event featured speakers from the public and private sectors. Guest speakers included Karen Campbell from American Express, Joan C. Waters from Columbia University, Wendy Kamenshine from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Johnston Barkat from the UN. The panel was moderated by John Zinsser, Negotiation and Conflict Resolution lecturer and ombudsman at Pacifica Human Communications. Prior to the panel, attendees had the opportunity to meet and network with the panelists as well as other attendees.

Each speaker came from a different professional background and brought a unique perspective to the panel. Zinsser kicked off the talk by asking each panelist what makes a successful ombudsman. Kamenshine said that you should be calm and approachable. It’s often obvious that you’ll be a good fit if, even before you enter an ombudsman position, you’ll be the one everyone comes to talk to. Campbell agreed, and added that being able to listen without judgement, as well as controlling your own emotions, are important attributes. Waters said that being genuinely interested in people’s concerns is vital. Similarly, Barkat said that it’s important to remember that a problem may seem insignificant to you, but it’s enormous to the person sharing it.

Zinsser asked how to increase outreach so that their constituency knows that they have an ombudsperson as a resource. Waters, an ombuds officer at Columbia, says their current focus is to determine whom they have not met, and who they see most often. If there is a volume of complaints, there may be an issue in that particular department. On the other hand, if there are no complaints, they may not be reaching that School.

Zinsser claimed that there are more NFL players than ombudspeople in the United States. He asked how to ensure that the ombuds field will grow, which elicited varied responses. Kamenshine said that it’s important to demonstrate the benefit of ombudspeople, and Waters agreed, saying that only then will organizations be willing to devote the resources to an ombuds office. Campbell added that ombudspeople themselves could be doing more to show their value.

Barkat said that until ombudspeople can make the business case that these soft skills are necessary, it will always be considered peripheral. Interestingly, he claims that the number of ombuds offices should not be growing because “the skills that are inherent in our role should be adopted in other contexts.” The “sensitivity and management practices” should be infused into the roles of leaders throughout the organization.

What responsibility do ombuds officers have to ensure that an organization behaves ethically? A common misconception about ombudspeople is that they have the ability to bring about large-scale change in an organization. On the contrary, Kamenshine said that ombudspeople can provide feedback and make recommendations, but it’s the leadership’s job to correct issues and ensure that rules and regulations are upheld in a fair way. What’s most important for company leadership, however, is to combat these issues before they surface.

Learn more about the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution graduate program at the School of Professional Studies.