To Avoid Harassment Crisis, Try An Ombudsman

ombudsman
Pfizer VP & chief ombudsman Timothy Shore.

When it comes to harassment, whistleblowing and a host of other HR issues, CEOs struggle with getting their employees to come forward so they can help—before it becomes a crisis. That need is accelerating in the era of #MeToo and social media.

One solution says Timothy Shore of Pfizer: An ombudsman.

A 27-year veteran of Pfizer, Shore started as a Labor and Employment attorney, then worked in HR and compliance, before becoming the company’s ombudsman about 7 years ago.

Which of course leads to the question: What’s an ombudsman?

“It’s an additional resource for employees who are struggling with a workplace issue,” Shore explains. “And it’s very relevant now with the whole #MeToo movement, but it really is for all types of employment issues, workplace issues. It just has to be work related, any type of issue that they have. And what we do is, when they come to us, we have a confidential, off-the-record conversation with them.”

On March 15, Shore sat down with Talley Parker, Principal at Jackson Lewis P.C., to tape a segment of the JL Live podcast from Jackson Lewis’ annual Corporate Counsel Conference in Miami, Florida. The conference focused on the significant developments and trends in employment law, including sexual harassment in the workplace.  Shore also participated on a panel for the conference on how ombudsmen help solve some of the issues around harassment claims in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Here are excerpts from the JL Live conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Shore: What makes us so different from, say, HR, or Compliance, or Legal, all of those are what I will call formal channels within an organization. So, when you go to one of those formal channels, you actually put the company on notice of your issue, and then some formal process or investigation will follow.

And there’s a ton of research out there that shows that folks are just reluctant, for whatever reason, to come forward to those formal channels when they’re struggling with an issue. Usually, it’s out of fear,, fear of retaliation, fear of not being believed, fear of just not knowing what’s going to happen if they engage in that formal process.

What the Ombuds Office does, it allows folks to come forward on an informal basis, and they can talk with us about their issue completely confidentially, completely off the record except in cases where there is an imminent risk of serious harm. Even though I’m a Pfizer employee, as is everybody that works in my office, my office is considered to be independent from the rest of Pfizer Inc. We’re a very special place, so that by coming to us, you’re not putting Pfizer Inc. on notice, officially on notice yet of your issue.

It allows the individual to feel comfortable doing this because they’re not taking that formal step, which is oftentimes a very big decision for somebody to do, and people are often reluctant to do that. But, it allows us to work with that individual one-on-one to provide them with whatever tools they may need in order to try to resolve that issue themselves.

Now, what my function cannot do is, we cannot investigate their issue, because if we do, then we’re acting on behalf of the company. So, we have to remain independent.

In talking to them, if we determine that, “Hey, this is a significant issue that really should be investigated and really needs the assistance of that formal channel,” our job becomes making that person comfortable and getting them to that formal channel so that they can report it to the company, and so that the formal channels can do a full investigation of that.

“With everything that’s going on out there, companies are looking for new and novel ways of dealing with these kinds of issues.” – Timothy Shore

How many people are on your team in your group?

In total, I have six folks that work directly for me, then I have one person up in Canada who’s actually a part-time contract person.

And Pfizer has employees all over the world?

We have employees in every country in the world. We have 94,000 employees worldwide.

So, if I’m an employee, I’m not comfortable going to HR, I want to talk to your group. How would I surface that complaint if I’m not working in New York with you?

You can reach out to us directly via our website or we have 800 numbers here in the U.S., and then we have numbers assigned outside the U.S., toll-free numbers where we have rolled out. And you would call us. You would make an appointment.

What we do not do, and what we won’t do is, we don’t do any business via email because that then creates this whole record of this, and we want to minimize that.

What percentage of companies have an ombudsman program like yours?

For whatever reason, it hasn’t caught on in the U.S. Only about 13% of U.S. corporations have an official ombuds program. I have a feeling that that number will increase now. With everything that’s going on out there, companies are looking for new and novel ways of dealing with these kinds of issues. But, again, I don’t want to say that it’s limited just to those types of issues. It can be any workplace issue that somebody’s struggling with, but in this environment with everything that we see in the news, I think companies are out there just kind of looking for better ways to deal with their employees, and this is one of those ways.

If I’m a Pfizer employee, and I come talk to you, what kind of confidence can I have that it’s not going to be shared outside of the ombudsman group?

We go to great lengths to protect individuals’ identity and confidentiality. When folks call us, they don’t have to give us their name. If they feel more comfortable using a different name, we’ll let them use a different name. Whatever they feel most comfortable doing, we will do because we want to make them comfortable so that they, you know, that they’ll come forward with whatever questions or issues they have. When we conclude a matter with somebody, we shred all the documentation associated with that matter.

We have a database separate and apart from the Pfizer Inc. database where we store information. But, we don’t store any identifying information in there. We use things like title, or years of service, type of issue, those kinds of things, but nothing in there would identify any individual as somebody who has come forward. What this allows us to do is really look at information across the organization in the aggregate, to look for trends to see where the problem spots may be, but we can do all of that while protecting the identity of the folks that have come to speak to us.

Talk to [those] who may be interested in starting a program like yours about why you’re able to operate independently and how that notice isn’t imputed to the organization.

Particularly when I speak to our employment lawyers, they always get nervous around that issue, and I understand that, being an employment lawyer myself. I know the possible repercussions of that.

If you think about it, every company, every one of your managers is a point of notice for your organization, right? We have tens of thousands of managers out there who potentially could be receiving information. We’re taking a huge risk every day because anybody could come forward to any one of those folks, and we trust that our managers are doing the right thing, but we don’t always know what every manager is hearing and what they’re doing with that information. The bigger risk, I would say, is not hearing about this information at all.

Over the years that the group has been operational, have you seen an increase in the number of reports that have been made to you, and how do those numbers compare to Human Resources? Similarly, if folks are complaining to you, are there less people going to that group?

When we look at things like number of employment litigation matters that we have, calls to our Compliance hotline, calls to our, Employee Relations function, all of those formal channels, we’re seeing those numbers actually go down in the years since we have launched, whereas, our numbers continue to go up. We’re up about 42%, so for our year-to-date this year. We’ve climbed, year after year.

People are feeling more and more comfortable with coming forward, because we’re able to resolve a big portion of those issues so that they don’t have to go to those formal channels. So, a big percentage of those issues can be resolved at a much lower level, much more effectively, much more cost-effectively, because we’re able to work at a very different level before it gets to that. That’s not why we implemented it, but it really has been incredibly effective.

How do people that work for Pfizer, how do they learn that your group exists?

We spend a good deal of time just marketing our function because the thing that I learned when we first launched it is that people don’t know what it is. Even our senior-level folks, I spend a fair amount of time with them one-on-one, explaining why we are different.

We start at the senior levels. I meet with them, educate them about this, and then we do just a mass communication plan to all of our employees. We do that in every way possible. We have town hall meetings, and we set up tables in the cafeteria and we give out little giveaways and our brochures, anything.

How can they learn a little bit more about the program in case they want to implement it?

The International Ombuds Association has a website, and you can visit that. There’s also something called The Ombuds Blog, which is out there, which is a great, great resource.

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