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Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is an ombudsman?
  2. What is a mediator?
  3. What is the authority of the United Nations ombudsmen and mediators?
  4. How many cases does the Ombudsman Service receive?
  5. What types of problems can I take to an ombudsman?
  6. I am not sure whether an ombudsman is the right place for my complaint, what should I do?
  7. I am beginning to see a conflict at work; when is the best moment in time to contact an ombudsman?
  8. What will an ombudsman do once I have contacted the office?
  9. What types of services can an ombudsman provide?
  10. If an ombudsman is not in the position to make any managerial decisions, how can his/her intervention be effective?
  11. Does contacting an ombudsman preclude formal recourse?
  12. How does an ombudsman maintain confidentiality?
  13. What does an ombudsman NOT do?
  14. Is there risk in contacting an ombudsman?
  15. How long does it take for an ombudsman to act on my case?

1. What is an ombudsman?

The word ombudsman (om-buds-man) originated in Sweden, where the term was first used to designate a public official who was appointed to look into citizens' complaints against governmental agencies. Ombudsmen who serve the general public and conduct formal investigations are today referred to as classical ombudsmen while organizational ombudsmen provide informal dispute-resolution services for work-related issues of employees of an organization or institution – universities and colleges, for example. At the United Nations, the ombudsman function is that of an organizational ombudsman. As a neutral and independent party, an ombudsman assists United Nations employees to address their work-related concerns and helps to resolve conflict through informal means.


2. What is a mediator?

A mediator is a third-party neutral who assists two or more parties to generate options to solve their dispute. A mediator will not take sides, counsel or give advice to the parties involved in the mediation.



3. What is the authority of the United Nations ombudsmen and mediators?

The United Nations ombudsmen and mediators are independent from the regular United Nations management structure. Ombudsmen and mediators provide informal conflict resolution within the overall justice system of the United Nations and, by nature of their mandate, have no management function; however, they provide upward feedback and can make recommendations to the Organization. The ombudsmen of the United Nations Secretariat and UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNOPS, UN Women and UNHCR have direct access respectively to the Secretary-General, the UNDP Administrator, the Executive Director of UNFPA, the Executive Director of UNICEF and the Executive Director of UNOPS and the High Commissioner for Refugees. The Office also has access to all information about staff except medical files.



4. How many cases does the Ombudsman Service receive?

In 2011, the Office of the United Nations Ombudsman and Mediation Services opened 2,267 cases, of which 1,588 were brought forward by staff of the Secretariat, 515 from staff of the funds and programmes, and 164 from staff of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.



5. What types of problems can I take to an ombudsman?

Any kind of complaint relating to your employment with the United Nations can be addressed to an ombudsman. You can seek guidance in dealing with complex policies and procedures and with personal difficulties, including issues such as discrimination, harassment or abuse of authority or other behaviour resulting in unfair treatment. You may also have questions relating to your career development or the staff selection system or entitlement and benefits under your contract.



6. I am not sure whether an ombudsman is the right place for my complaint, what should I do?

If you are unsure if your issue is within the mandate of an ombudsman and you don't know whom to see, or what procedure to use, the Ombudsman can help you to identify the right office or contact person.



7. I am beginning to see a conflict at work; when is the best moment in time to contact an ombudsman?

The chances to resolve your conflict are best in the early stages. We encourage you to use our services as the first, not last, resort. An ombudsman is a safe first step in dealing with a problem and it is a good place to evaluate your options when you are unsure how to proceed.



8. What will an ombudsman do once I have contacted the office?

Once your message has been received by our office, an ombudsman will be assigned to your case and contact you immediately to determine the best time and method of communication with you. Usually that happens within five working days. As a first step, the ombudsman will listen to your concerns and may ask you to provide further information on the issue you are addressing. After this informal fact-finding, the ombudsman will help you to identify the options available to address your concerns and to look at these options from all perspectives. However, an ombudsman will not decide which option is the best way forward; that is your decision. Once you have chosen what option you would like to pursue, an ombudsman can also provide further services.



9. What types of services can an ombudsman provide?

Depending on the nature of your conflict, an ombudsman can, for instance: (a) help you to explore your options for action; (b) offer extensive information about United Nations policies, procedures and practices; (c) refer you to the appropriate offices or persons in the United Nations system; (d) provide coaching; (e) offer mediation or shuttle diplomacy; and (f) communicate with other offices about your request to convey your concerns or receive information.



10. If an ombudsman is not in the position to make any managerial decisions, how can his/her intervention be effective?

While an ombudsman does not have any decision-making power and cannot overturn any decisions made by the administration of the United Nations, she/he can often effectively resolve cases through various informal tools such as shuttle diplomacy, dialogue and providing information or coaching. An ombudsman also makes recommendations to the appropriate offices as to options for fair process for addressing an issue. An ombudsman has a thorough, cross-cutting knowledge of the United Nations system and speaking to her/him can help you to untangle a complicated situation and uncover alternatives available to relieve your concerns.


11. Does contacting an ombudsman preclude formal recourse?

No. The Office of the Ombudsman supplements but does not replace the existing resources for formal conflict resolution and fair practice at the United Nations. If you are not satisfied with the informal conflict resolution process, you may initiate a formal grievance process through the established mechanisms. Although the ombudsman’s role does not extend to the formal route, she/he can provide you with the needed information on procedures.


12. How does an ombudsman maintain confidentiality?

The Office is a safe place to discuss your concerns. An ombudsman will take no action on your complaint without your permission. Information provided to the ombudsman is kept secure and confidential and will be discussed with a third party only with the explicit permission of the staff member. An ombudsman is immune from any demand from any level of the organization to disclose any information or document regarding a staff member without the latter's prior authorization. Working notes are kept by an ombudsman; these are destroyed once the case is closed. The only exception to the ombudsman privilege of confidentiality is where there appears to be imminent risk of serious harm if there is no other reasonable option.


13. What does an ombudsman NOT do?


14. Is there risk in contacting an ombudsman?

An ombudsman will take no action on your complaint without your permission. Information provided to an ombudsman is kept secure and confidential and will be discussed with a third party only with the explicit permission of the staff member.

An ombudsman is immune from any demand from any level of the organization to disclose any information or document regarding a staff member without the latter's prior authorization.


15. How long does it take for an ombudsman to act on my case?

An ombudsman will try to give you an immediate response on whether the concern you have raised falls within the jurisdiction of the office. An ombudsman will act as quickly as possible to explore options with you to resolve the problem. Please remember, it is best to deal with an issue early.