The Ombudspersonperson: a safe space to initiate a restorative process for Survivors
By Guest Blogger Caroline Lemay, Ombudsperson, Investigator, Mediator, Advisor on Conflict Prevention
Experiencing sexual misconduct in the workplace, at school or at university can create a general sense of insecurity that can greatly impair a Survivor’s capacity to strive professionally, academically, socially, and intimately. Therefore, when an event of such misconduct occurred, it is important to consider helping a Survivor to participate in a restorative process – when and if they feel ready and safe to do so. Providing them with an identified and readily accessible safe space where they can tell their story and learn more about the options available to them to assist with their recovering a much-needed sense of safety, is a very good start. Indeed, giving students or staff access to an Ombudsperson is an effective and novel way to ensure a professional response, in a timely manner and can provide many other advantages.
To name just a few, an Ombudsperson is an impartial and external party to the organization that acts as the converging point for issues related to sexual misconduct. The Ombudsperson can provide an unbiased, non-judgemental ear to the Survivor and allow them to share their experience. They have access to first-hand information and to formal and informal processes provided within the organization’s internal policies and possess information about other services available in the community that could otherwise support them. It is also a place bystanders and third parties can go to if they have witnessed anything that makes them feel uncomfortable in their environment. The service is confidential for anyone who visits the Ombudsperson, which increases the sense of trust and safety.
When a formal process is considered, Survivors can consult the Ombudsperson in order to see if the processes provided by the organization will fit their needs and meet their expectations. Having the procedure explained, the possible outcomes and its inherent limits can have a securing effect, as it makes it transparent and predictable. It also helps to make an informed decision and greatly reduces the risks of re-traumatization.
When a formal process is not the chosen avenue by the Survivor – which is often the case – the Ombudsperson can still suggest an informal intervention, adapted to the specifics of the case while ensuring the safety of all parties. In these instances, the Ombudsperson can also act as an intermediary with the management of the organization to put in place organizational measures that will make sure the Survivor recover a sense of safety in her environment.
At all times, the Ombudsperson can act as an advisor to the management to make sure that the processes put in place – formal or informal – are trauma-informed and respect Survivors' reasonable expectations of privacy, while ensuring the Respondent receives fair treatment. The Ombudsperson can also direct the Survivor (but also the Respondents) to services available for them and that can be useful to deal with the stress of the process or related issues.
To name one last of the many advantages of having an Ombudsperson, it is its preventative potential. Indeed, the organization is informed about the possible prevalence of sexual misconduct through monthly and yearly confidential reporting. It helps to understand how misconduct happens and the status of the parties involves. This information enables the Ombudsperson to make non-legally binding recommendations on policy changes and training in order to tackle the risk factors that had been identified over a period of time.
All in all, the Ombudsperson is a creative and cost-effective way to provide a credible service to its community, while ensuring the safety and the fairness of the preferred processes, for all parties, together with keeping the organization informed and proactive.