Workplace bullying and the ombudsman

On Monday I had the privilege of delivering a keynote address to open the annual conference of the International Ombudsman Association (IOA), held in Houston, Texas.

For readers unfamiliar with this position, an organizational ombudsman is a senior-level administrator who is granted an independent, neutral role to facilitate the resolution of interpersonal disputes and to engage in institutional troubleshooting. IOA’s membership is a mix of ombuds from colleges and universities (its largest group), government, and private industry, as well as independent consultants. 

The speaking invitation gave me a chance to address and interact with several hundred attendees about the challenges posed by workplace bullying. Based on the responses, clearly these issues present themselves frequently in their practices. My own remarks, a mix of “workplace bullying 101” and observations & advice specific to ombuds, were followed by a lively and informed Q&A session.

In addition, at least two other programs at the conference (which continues through Wednesday) are devoted to workplace bullying, showing once again how this topic is entering the mainstream of contemporary employment relations.


I’d like to thank the IOA and fellow attendees for this invitation and for their warm introduction to the organization. I regret that I was unable to stay for the entire conference, because I so enjoyed the day I was able to spend with them. Special thanks to ombuds Lisa Witzler, conference co-chair and my primary IOA liaison, for her guidance in preparing a talk that would be useful to IOA members.

Extended outline of keynote address

Conference attendees and others can access an extended outline of my keynote address, “Responding to Workplace Bullying: The Role of the Ombudsman,” here.

On organizational cultures

During the Q&A, I recommended a piece by Drs. Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks on organizational cultures. You can access a past blog post about it here, which includes a link to ordering the article.

2010 IOA journal issue

The IOA’s journal devoted an excellent package of articles to bullying behaviors in its 2010 issue, which can be accessed here.

Workplace bullying and ethical leadership

Especially for IOA members who may be visiting this blog, my 2008 article, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership,” may be of interest. It can be accessed here.

8 responses

  1. Hi, David,

    I read through your outline and, of course, it was very good. I have a question about any feedback (or questions) you received from your audience regarding the confidentiality promised vs. being able to try for understanding and/or bring about reconciliation between the parties. From what I’ve seen, the bully is made aware of the complaint and the identity of the one complaining has to be acknowledged in order for the two parties to come together and resolve their issues. Consequently, all it did was drive one person to stop the process because of fear of being retaliated against — and one person (different situation) was retaliated against. In that situation the bully is still employed at the company and the target was “laid off.”

    I’m interested in what these so-called mediators have experienced. To me, it seems to be less than effective. Not that we shouldn’t try — but I sure haven’t experienced any positive resolutions brought about by the company ombudsman.

    • Mary, in practical terms, confidentiality in any employment investigation may be next to impossible. After all, anyone accused of wrongdoing cannot respond to specific allegations without knowing the identity of the person lodging the complaint.

      The topic of confidentiality in that context didn’t come up in the Q&A, though I’m sure it’s an issue for ombuds on a fairly regular basis.

      • I agree. I only mention it because there are some workplace issues that can be resolved through the ombudsman program, I’m sure. And there can never be enough education on any issue.

        Additionally, I’m hoping that some bullies would be able to see the error of their ways and meet their targets half-way so that mutual respect can be established and the bullying can cease.

        I just don’t see it happening with an ombudsman who has no real authority in the workplace — especially since there are so many testimonies from targets who have been retaliated against after speaking up for themselves.

        And – as I stated — a resolution of conflict cannot occur without full disclosure. Hence — retaliation.

        And the ombudsman is way down the road to the next workplace issue.

    • Hi Mary,

      You raise an important concern about confidentiality and the role of the organizational ombuds. Perhaps I can help clarify. As an organizational ombuds I rarely conduct mediations for the very concern that you raise. This is particularly true in a bullying case when to do so exposes the initiating visitor to bullying from the bullying party. Far more frequently I will simply work with visitors one on one to help them consider their range of options in how to deal with the situation, and will not notify anyone that a visitor has even come to see me. I will only share this information with others if the visitor agrees and if I also feel comfortable doing so. I would be very hesitant to mediate a bullying case even if the visitor agrees. This is in accordance with our standards for practice (3.1). See for more info.
      Bullying is extremely difficult to address and the visitors options are often quite limited, but nonetheless I frequently hear from visitors that they value having someone listen to them confidentially and take them seriously. They appreciate having a safe space to think it through.

      • Good answer. Thanks. It sounds like you are good at your job. My mistake is that I always think in terms of resolution and I don’t see that happening within the workplaces of my experience. I’ve been majorly bullied twice by my HR Directors/VP’s — and there is really no place to go for HR professionals. The resolution in my case was leaving the workplace under duress in one case and being laid off in the other. If you can counsel ee’s, that can be very beneficial to them — but actually curing the workplace of the bully I have not had the privilege of witnessing — or hearing about.

        I realize this is why David and others are working so hard for the legislation, and I’m truly grateful for that. However, we have laws against sexual harrassment (and policies that include other kinds of harrassment); age discrimination; racial discrimination, etc. And we all know that er’s consistently get by with committing these illegal acts.

        I know I’m continually presenting a very negative point of view, and I really don’t want to do that. I’m just stuck in the reality that you can’t legislate character.

        Thanks to all of you, though, who spend your time helping people.

  2. Mary,

    Thanks for your generous reply. I am sorry to hear about your experience, and sad to say that it is not uncommon. I’ve heard that HR professionals are particularly vulnerable. Frequently, leaving the organization is often the most attractive (or rather the least unattractive) option for visitors.
    Curing the workplace of the bully is a tough challenge which we as a profession spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about. We are desperately trying to find better tools and improve in our ability to address it, which is why we were so interested in having David come and share his important work. My sense is that bullying is never going to go away, but that collectively we can do a much better job of addressing it in the workplace. Sexual harassment is a good analogy. It has not gone away, and we still have miles to go, but I think we are in a much better place than we were 40 years ago.

    Thanks again Mary

  3. Totally agree with you. And we all do appreciate David and people like you.

    (I’m actually retired against my will, now, because of said age discrimination — not to mention discrimination against anyone being unemployed more than 6 months).

    I hope one of these days to remember I’m “retired” and to be able to rest my brain from these HR-related issues.

    Have a great weekend.


  4. Dear David,
    Thank you for speaking on behalf of the oppressed among us in the workplace.
    My experience with the Ombuds person at my University during my graduate school experience was less than helpful and may have even left me unable to proceed legally. All she did was encourage me to “know the school policies” and “don’t talk to a lawyer since the school will clam up and you won’t be able to proceed.”
    The ombuds person had no desire to advocate for my needs. She was so interested in remaining completely “neutral” that she was ineffective. Then when I was put in a position of having to file a complaint she dropped me in an instant. There was no other person available to support my needs during the complaint process. Because I didn’t bring in a lawyer per her advice, the school benefited from the appearance that I was not able to meet the statute of limitations for tort claims in Oregon.
    They are walking such a fine line between their employer, in this case a University, and their job description. I don’t know how any organization can legitimize the ombuds position in light of the fact that their position is paid by the organization,

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