Role of the Ombudsman
Donna N. Saleh
APRIL 2005 - For
many companies, the cost of doing business has skyrocketed
because of employee-initiated lawsuits. According to the most
recent figures provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission, the average cost to settle a discrimination lawsuit
in America is approximately $297,000, excluding legal
are taking an active role in reducing the risk of litigation
by employing the services of an “ombudsman”:
a neutral, confidential, and independent third party to
handle employee complaints before they become lawsuits.
and discrimination claims represent one of the most costly
forms of employee litigation for companies. In April 2003,
a group of eight female workers at Brooklyn’s Lutheran
Medical Center were awarded more than $5.4 million in settlement
of claims that a doctor had sexually harassed them. In 2000,
Coca-Cola Enterprises agreed to settle a racial discrimination
suit for $156 million. In 1998, Home Depot settled a gender-based
discrimination suit for $65 million when hourly employees
alleged that the retailer discriminated against women by
offering them fewer promotions. These suits followed the
major Texaco settlement of a racial-based discrimination
lawsuit in 1996 for $140 million. As a result of these types
of lawsuits, many major corporations have agreed—as
part of their settlement—to implement an ombudsman
often than not, employees are reluctant to voice allegations
relating to issues such as harassment or discrimination,
out of fear of the possible repercussions. To combat this
fear, the ombudsman is viewed as a trustworthy, dependable,
and risk-free party to whom employees can voice concerns
confidentially. The ombudsman’s role is multifaceted,
and includes the following functions:
Listener. Oftentimes it is helpful
for an employee to merely use the ombudsman as a listener
to help clarify the issues, disentangle complicated situations,
and prioritize concerns.
resource. The ombudsman is available as
an information resource, providing access to applicable
guidelines and policies, or facilitating communication
with other services or appropriate administrative units.
of options. The ombudsman may suggest a
range of feasible options and help employees evaluate
the pros and cons.
Role-player. The ombudsman is
available to discuss potential situations and role-play
an upcoming meeting, as well as suggest constructive approaches
to handle difficult situations.
intervener. With permission of the complainant,
the ombudsman can act as an intermediary to clarify issues
and initiate problem-solving, including facilitating a
Trend recorder. The ombudsman
will periodically report to management on problem areas
and trends within the organization so that such issues
can be addressed through policies and procedures.
today’s litigious environment, taking steps to reduce
the risk of litigation is a smart business decision. Through
the eyes of an employee, there may be nothing to lose and
everything to gain by initiating a discrimination or harassment
lawsuit with the potential for a payoff and satisfaction.
Through the eyes of an employer, all it takes is one major
lawsuit to adversely affect the bottom line and, therefore,
whether or not the corporation makes a profit at the end
of the year. The role of the ombudsman is essential in effectively
managing employee relations and reducing the risks associated
N. Saleh, JD, LLM.