· How do you determine a trend?
· In what situations would you report a trend with few numbers?
· To whom do you report the trend? What is your process for reporting? Is this decision situation determinant?
· What trends do you not report?
· How do you protect visitor anonymity?
Lisa’s questions, and the responses generated in the session, require us to think deeply about the scope of our roles as ombuds and professional members of an organization. They also focus our attention on some fundamental tensions inherent in our professional work. The purpose of this essay is to continue and expand the discussion begun in that session by bringing clearer focus to the issues raised, and suggesting some guidelines for making decisions about when and how to report trends. First, we present a working definition of a trend and a summary of the discussion at the 2014 conference; then, we suggest guidelines for determining whether a trend exists, and when, to whom, and how to report it.
What is a “Trend”? And When Should it be Reported?
In common usage, the term trend typically refers to a general tendency or pattern occurring in a group and indicated by a set of similar or recurring events or phenomena. In our conference discussions, this term was interpreted in the context of organizational ombudsing to include problematic patterns of interaction, structural and systemic issues—virtually any general condition that might interfere with supportive communication and collaborative problem solving. It was evident from our discussions that ombuds make judgments about reporting trends based on the unique circumstances surrounding each situation, mindful of our standards of practice, and especially mindful of any risks to visitors.
Whether a trend should be reported depends upon the extent to which it is pervasive, the degree to which it is harmful, the likelihood that reporting it will lead to constructive action and the risk that reporting it may trigger harmful reactions. However, there is no single, reliable standard identifying the frequency or number of specific instances that may constitute a trend, and it is rarely possible for the ombuds to acquire a precise measure of either pervasiveness or harm. Moreover, like a reporter who must protect her/his sources, the ombuds is constrained in any reporting by our commitment to confidentiality and our need to protect visitors’ anonymity.
Occasionally, a trend is truly pervasive, noticeably affecting large numbers of employees, and clearly harmful to the organization. In these instances the trend should be reported and, due to its pervasiveness, can be reported with little or no risk to any specific visitor. Of course, reporting these trends can be like pointing to the pink elephant in the room; it isn’t news. In our experience, however, significant and fairly obvious problems often go unaddressed in an organization until someone speaks up. Calling attention to such conditions can be very helpful in triggering remedial action by management, especially when the ombuds can assist in improving the condition.
Systematic, Data Driven Assessment of Trends
A particular challenge ombuds confront is attempting to identify the presence and extent of a trend while dealing with a manager for whom the trend is unwelcome news. How confident can we be of our conclusions about trends? And how can we communicate this confidence, given our need to protect our visitors’ confidentiality and anonymity? Phrased another way, the question is: When can we say with enough confidence that a trend is sufficiently apparent and sufficiently problematic that it warrants reporting by the ombuds and action by management?
We are often challenged to provide credible evidence of a trend’s existence. For instance, those in the sciences rely on verifiable data to support their conclusions. Some managers do not want to hear they have serious conflicts which require their attention. All managers require reasonably reliable real-world evidence to inform their decisions and actions. To consider a trend report as valid, the evidence and analysis behind it must be sound. We are professional practitioners, not scientists, but our role and practice are well-grounded in research by social scientists in psychology, sociology, communication, organization management and conflict management.
In identifying trends, to the extent it is feasible, ombuds use both quantitative and qualitative social science methods. We follow, for instance, Owen’s Criteria (1984) for thematic analysis which considers repetition, recurrence, and forcefulness to identify themes. If a specific type of conflict arises repeatedly, regardless of who the visitors are and their unique circumstances, then the pattern reveals itself and needs to be addressed. When an issue arises several times, is likely to recur, and can have a significant negative impact on visitors and the organization, that issue is also a theme and therefore a “trend” worthy of discussion. In addition to any case-related coding done by ombuds to look for trends, we are continually listening to stories that reveal themes. Ethnographers and researchers using oral histories collect information to identify themes this way. In addition, ombuds can employ the investigative technique of triangulation to help confirm the presence of a trend. This technique involves inquiring among varied sources and using varied methods to acquire data from different points of view concerning the possible trend (Patton, 2002; Webb, Campbell, Schwartz and Sechrest, 1966).
Trends with Few Numbers
The more challenging decisions for ombuds involve trends that may not be visible to management, and may not involve statistically large numbers. In our discussions we focused on the question “In what situations would you report a trend with few numbers?” Here are some examples of such situations that the discussion group witnessed in past years:
1. Four different visitors from the same administrative unit have sought help from the ombuds to deal with the behavior of a supervisor whom they describe as abusive and vindictive. Each is afraid to confront the supervisor directly. Their complaints seem credible and consistent.
2. Seven different visitors from the same unit in the university library are currently engaged with the ombuds office. They are all complaining about one another; none is willing to meet with the others to work out their differences. All are complaining that their supervisor refuses to deal with the problem.
3. Three different custodians in student housing have visited the ombuds office complaining that new vacuum cleaners were purchased that are much heavier than the old ones, and that this is a serious burden since they must carry these up and down stairs between dorm floors. Each asserts that this is another instance in a pattern of making decisions about how the work will be done without consulting the people who do the work.
4. Two different workers in a facilities maintenance unit complained of serious bullying behavior by their supervisor. They insisted on meeting with the ombuds off campus, in non-work hours, fearing reprisals if the supervisor learned of their complaints. Both were reluctant to allow the ombuds to discuss the issue with the supervisor or any other administrator. For several years thereafter, there were one or more complaint each year about the same supervisor.
Each of these situations is unique, but they have several important considerations in common: (1) there is no precise measure of the frequency of behaviors or instances that make up a “trend,” so pervasiveness is therefore uncertain; (2) while we can assume that each trend (if it is a trend) causes harm to our visitor, other employees, and/or the organization, the harm is not readily measurable and cannot be well documented; and (3) there may be risk to the visitor and perhaps also to the ombuds (and the ombuds function) in reporting what the ombuds judges to be a trend.
Each situation, therefore, requires gathering as much information as possible, (given time, structural and resource limits); determining if the information indicates a trend, making careful judgments about the credibility of informants; assessing the current and potential damage resulting from the trend as well as the risks in reporting it; and weighing the likelihood that reporting it will yield improvement.
Suggested Guidelines for Making Judgments about Reporting a Trend
Because there is no formula for determining when to report a trend, the decision to do so requires the ombuds to make judgments. Such judgments require competence, wisdom, and often a large dose of courage. Competence is necessary in understanding of the dynamics of human interaction in organizational settings and in observing objectively without prejudging patterns. Wisdom is required in sorting out the organizational politics involved, and in discerning how to both challenge and support people in difficult situations. Courage is always required, as Cynthia Joyce has noted, when delivering “unwelcome news” and often for “coping with the response” (Joyce, 2014). Our discussions pointed to some useful guidelines for deciding whether to report a trend. These are:
1. When there is a significant concern for the physical safety of one or more persons, the condition should be reported. This is standard for ombuds, as imminent risk of serious harm.
2. When, after exploring with the visitor the risks and possible outcomes of reporting, s/he clearly and explicitly requests that the trend be reported.
3. Report, but do not become an advocate for the visitor. Advocate for fair, transparent process and for supportive human environments.
4. Carefully preserve visitors’ anonymity.
5. When the trend involves systemic or structural issues and can be reported without risk to the visitor, it should be reported.
6. The more severe and pervasive the trend, the more important it is to report.
7. If helping visitors cope with harmful conditions enables those harmful conditions to continue by making them less visible, we might consider reporting the trend. (Sometimes, helping visitors cope with a problem, or mitigating the harmful effects of a problem, can have the perverse effect of masking the problem, or reducing motivation to solve it, thus decreasing the likelihood that the problem will actually be solved.)
Choosing a Recipient of the Report
In deciding whether to report a trend, the ombuds also confronts the question: To whom, and by what process, should I report this trend? Answering this question depends on multiple situational factors.
Primary among these factors is the extent to which we, as the ombuds, have a relationship of mutual trust with an appropriate recipient of the report. “Informality” and “Independence” are standard principles in ombuds practice; we do not have line authority in the organization. While most of us “report to” a designated executive officer, that officer is not typically the most appropriate recipient of a report about any specific problematic trend. Ombuds work persistently, over time, to develop relationships with as many supervisors, managers and executive officers as they can, within their operating purview. Lacking line authority, we need to demonstrate integrity, competence, judgment and skill not only in handling specific cases, but also regarding broader issues of managing human environments. At the same time, we need to assess the extent to which we can trust each of these officers to handle sensitive information well, and to act constructively on the information we might provide. That is, we need to assess their integrity, competence, judgment and skill. When we have a relationship of strong mutual trust with a particular manager or officer, we can then judge whether it is reasonably safe, and probably useful to report the trend.
A second important factor is the administrative unit in which the trend exists. We are not part of our organization’s “chain of command,” but it is important that we honor it. The recipient of our trend report should be the office most directly responsible for dealing with it. For instance, if the trend belongs to a specific academic department, the appropriate recipient of our report should be the department head. If the trend is about a particular person, it should initially be discussed with that person, provided that this can be done with explicit permission from the visitor(s), and when any risk to visitors is minimal. Reporting to someone higher up in the organization should occur only when the problem cannot be addressed at the lower level. The real questions here are: Who is the best person in this organization to address the problem posed by this trend? And, do we have a relationship based on mutual trust?
On the question of to whom a trend should be reported, we should also observe that there may be occasions when there is no appropriate, trustworthy recipient for a particular trend report. So, in some cases, when there is risk that a manager or supervisor might react negatively and act to harm the careers of persons he/she suspects of complaining to the ombuds, and when there is little likelihood that the problem will be resolved, it may be best not to report, and better to pursue other options.
Protecting the Anonymity of Our Visitors
The final, difficult question addressed in the session was “How do we protect the anonymity of our visitor(s) when we report a trend?” We, of course, avoid identifying visitors, and carefully couch what we report in general terms to avoid directing attention to our visitor. We also are careful to discuss any potential for the visitor’s role to be discovered or inferred as a result of reporting the trend, to consider potential consequences of any breach of their anonymity, and go forward with the report only if we have clear and explicit permission to do so from the visitor.
Our primary responsibility is always to our visitor, but we also have responsibilities as professional members of our employing organization. Hence, we consider the well-being of the whole system and of the visitor’s fellow employees. And, when appropriate, we encourage visitors to do likewise.
Decisions to report trends are difficult for ombuds on many levels; uncertainties and potential pitfalls abound. Confronted with evidence of a problematic trend, however, the ombuds must make those decisions. Both reporting and not reporting can have multiple, unintended consequences in the real world. Let’s look at the outcomes of those three examples cited at the beginning of this essay:
1. At the request of the four complaining visitors, the trend involving the abusive supervisor was reported to that supervisor’s boss, who did not take constructive steps to resolve the problem. The net outcome was that conditions worsened, at least temporarily. One of the visitors transferred to another unit; one took an early retirement; another took an extended disability leave.
2. The employees of the library unit were persuaded to meet together in a conversation facilitated by an ombudsman. They resolved some issues. The supervisor, seeing the effort they were engaged in, took the occasion to retire. Relationships improved.
3. The custodians were stuck with the heavier vacuums that had already been purchased, but a process was created for consulting in advance of future purchases with employees who would actually be using the equipment. Conditions improved.
4. Lacking permission from the facilities employees to report the trend, and recognizing the risks of reprisals against visitors, the trend was not reported. The problem in this unit is ongoing.
Ombudsing requires both courage and caution. We cannot always predict the outcome when we choose to, or choose not to, report a trend. However, if we make well considered judgments based on systematic analysis we can often influence positive change while minimizing the likelihood of harmful outcomes. We can maintain our primary focus on our visitors while enhancing the well-being and effectiveness of our organization. Toward those ends, this discussion of when, how, and to whom we should report trends should continue.
Joyce, C. (2014). Courage with Supervisors and Administrators, Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, 7(1), 15-23.
Owen, W.F. (1984). Interpretive themes in relational communication, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70, 274-278.
Patton, M.Q. (2002). Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Webb, E.J., Campbell, D.T., Schwartz, R.D. & Sechrest, L. (1966). Unobtrusive Measures: Nonreactive Research in the Social Sciences. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally College Publishing Co.