NACD Focuses on Ombuds Programs

Last year I attended the NACD Directorship 100, proud to be listed again a worthy of being watched. This year, even though so honored, I won’t be able to make this important learning event. Learning event? Aren’t these functions mostly just networking opportunities? They are both. No one should question the value of such functions as networking opportunities. Who better to meet than the Directorship 100 (and even the ones to watch)? But I just noticed the October edition of NACD Directorship provides evidence of learning beyond even what those putting on the event might have expected. Amazingly I may have played a small part in it.  

In an article entitled Building a Culture of Trust From the Ground Up: The ombuds as part of a comprehensive conflict management system creates tangible value for the corporation by  the authors discuss the advantages of an organizational ombudsman. My eye was drawn to the following when I saw my name mentioned:

‘Don’t Let It Happen to You’

So why, you might ask, is not every corporation and its board aggressively implementing an effective ombudsman program? There is recent and dramatic evidence that there is a wide gap in knowledge and understanding of this emerging best practice.

In December, James McRitchie (of CorpGov.net) reviewed Charles Howard’s definitive book, The Organizational Ombudsman: Origins, Roles and Operations—A Legal Guide, published by the American Bar Association in 2010. McRitchie mused: “With all the advantages such offices offer to corporations, I was wondering why more corporations haven’t set up programs.”

At the 2011 NACD Directorship 100 program, he posed that very question during a panel focused on whistleblowing and other mechanisms to report and resolve ethical issues, sparking interest in what to many was then a novel concept. Virtually no one there, neither panelists nor members of the audience, had any experience with an organizational ombudsman. McRitchie’s observation: “Don’t let it happen to you. I expect to hear much more about [the] organizational ombudsman in the future…”

In my post on the event (NACD Directorship 100), I wrote:

In response to a question from me, apparently there was no experience with organizational ombudsmen in the companies represented. Might be worth exploring. See The Governance Ombuds: SVNACD & Stanford’s Rock Center.

However, I was much more explicit in my book review of The Organizational Ombudsman: Origins, Roles, and Operations–A Legal Guide:

With all the advantages such offices offer to corporations I was wondering why more corporations haven’t set up programs.

At the recent NACD Directorship 100 program I asked that question during a panel focused on whistle-blowing and other mechanisms to report and resolve ethical issues. None of the panelists had any experience with organizational ombudsman at the companies they represented. Looking to the audience of several hundred, they tooseemed to offer nothing but blank stares. My naive question had unintentionally turned into a “gotcha” moment. Don’t let it happen to you. I expect to hear much more about organizational ombudsman in the future and this book will certainly help spread the word.

McBride had been part of the SVNACD & Stanford’s Rock event. He and James Hostetler were encouraged by NACD to write the most recent article for their publication. It is great to see NACD moving forward by informing members of this important option. Setting up an ombuds office and operating it so that confidentiality, independence and neutrality are protected is no easy task but there appears to be much more upside than down, if done right. McBride tells me via e-mail:

The article has been well received. For example, at the recent meeting of the Corporate Organizational Ombudsman Roundtable in Cleveland, we made a presentation on the article’s themes and engaged in a wide ranging interactive discussion of how more companies could be motivated to establish programs. The Dispute Resolution Section of the American Bar Association has established a new task force to study ways in which the ABA could provide leadership in promoting the organizational ombudsman function.  Jim Hostetler is participating on that task force and it will be interesting to see how it unfolds. In these and other ways we believe that we are becoming part of the ongoing dialogue in corporate America about strengthening existing systems to mange risk and enhance ethics and compliance programs. We remain frustrated that we have yet to reach a tipping point, but your support and understanding are valuable assets in our advocacy efforts.

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