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An Informal Approach To Solving Problems: ‘Ombuds' Help Organizations Deal with Conflicts, Complaints

Connecticut Law Tribune

February 22, 2010

Grains of sand can foul up great machines and bring down great organizations. Problems that don’t rise to the level of a crime or tort can afflict organizations to their serious detriment. Charles Howard, a partner in Hartford-based Shipman & Goodwin, knows a thing or two about the importance of solving small problems before they have big consequences.

On top of his business litigation and intellectual property work, he’s built an unusual niche practice. He provides counsel to ombudsman offices at large corporations, top universities, and some of the nation’s most prestigious research institutions.

That work is the focus of a 642-page book Howard has just published through the American Bar Association’s Dispute Resolution Section. It’s called “The Organizational Ombudsman – Origins, Roles and Operations– A Legal Guide.” (Although he uses the better-known term “ombudsman” in the title, throughout the book Howard favors the gender-neutral “ombuds.”)

He’s found that people in his client organizations need to be able to do their work without dishonesty or other corrosive behaviors. Many organizations have hotlines or whistle-blower options to bring problems to the attention of people who can do something about them. But these approaches have their limitations, as Howard has found.

The ombuds listen to complaints in informal settings that stress confidentiality, minimize confrontation and, in the end, offer options for resolving an issue. Howard spoke recently with Senior Writer Thomas B. Scheffey.

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