Does your office need an ombudsperson?
Melanie Raymond vividly remembers her first impression of law firm culture as an articling student.
“I was surprised in my first encounters with fellow colleagues about how everybody was bragging about being overloaded with work,” says Raymond, a commissioner at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. “I was surprised how this was something that was seen as positive.”
Every workplace culture is different – and those differences can lead to conflict. In a diverse work environment, it’s easy to miscommunicate and a simple misunderstanding can quickly escalate into a full-blown fight.
“Business and professions, for example, have a culture that influences the work environment and how decisions are taken,” says Raymond. “Conflicts may arise when someone does not have the keys to understand implicit codes that are a part of that culture.
“This does not mean that they are not intelligent. It just means that they were built with another paradigm. All too often, the fact that someone does not follow what is seen as a ‘rule’ is attributed by the majority to a voluntary move to ‘disobey’ or to stand out, but it might not be.”
That’s where an ombudsperson can help. A neutral third party can provide the expertise to guide lawyers and staff through dispute resolution.
The ideal ombudsperson has a wide range of expertise, personal experience and is impartial, says Caroline Lemay, an independent workplace facilitator and ombudsperson for the Lester B. Pearson School Board.
“You want someone with a personal background that makes them able to understand a large variety of situations and personalities without feeling intimidated,” says Lemay. “Being impartial is not something that is easy to be and that you become overnight. It needs a certain maturity to be able to master this essential quality, which will be the one that will make people trust you or not.”
An ombudsperson can provide confidential advice to employees and give them the tools to either resolve the issue themselves or seek out more formal mediation. Through a dispute resolution office, law firms can identify the major issues in the workplace and develop policies to prevent conflict.
“Giving the chance to the staff – even managers – the chance to contact confidentially a third party assigned to the conflict resolution can really foster a culture of conflict resolution and trust,” says Lemay.
“This way leaves the person responsible for the resolutions of the situation they are facing, but it gives them also the possibility to quickly request an intervention of the third party if things seem to go wrong.
In this sense, the intervention can be preventive because you can intervene before the escalation of the conflict.”
Having an ombudsperson is a signal to lawyers and staff that conflict resolution is a priority. Lemay would also like to see good communication skills – the key to preventing conflict – given a greater emphasis.
“Communication skills are something you can [teach], but the best communicators are the one who master those skills naturally,” says Lemay.
“Sometimes I feel that the more you get into higher management positions, those skills should been better looked at, rather than looking only for technical skills to promote someone.”
The first step to being a great communicator. “Put a true effort to listen to the voices of those who think in a different way and take into account what they have to say,” says Melanie Raymond. “If what they want can’t be done, or doesn’t work, explain why.”
Don’t be afraid to start hard conversations. If you know a colleague is upset with you, be brave and open up a dialogue. “Being respectful, transparent and open to change your opinion is key to initiating a conversation in a sensitive context,” says Caroline Lemay.
Lead the way
“Management should lead by example,” says Lemay. “If they don’t, chances are that the positive leader in the office won’t consider the workplace a conducive environment to evolve and therefore, either (s)he will mold her/himself to the prevalent culture or will leave.”