Ombuds’ corner: Work conflict or harassment?

In this series, the Bulletin aims to explain the role of the Ombuds at CERN by presenting practical examples of misunderstandings that could have been resolved by the Ombuds if he had been contacted earlier. Please note that, in all the situations we present, the names are fictitious and used only to improve clarity.


Bill*, thanks to his technical competence, has been nominated leader of a group in charge of various projects. During his learning phase, he benefited from the experience of his collaborators and had a good working relationship with all of them. However, after few months, his relationship with Mike*, a senior member of the group in charge of some specific developments, turned sour. As the situation did not improve after many weeks, Mike decided to file an informal complaint of harassment with the Ombuds against his group leader, as he was convinced that Bill was bullying him.

Mike explained that Bill was interfering more and more with his responsibilities in the project, by interacting with his collaborators directly, giving them orders, and even superseding him in meetings by arbitrarily taking over. Mike found himself cut out of important information that he needed in order to conduct his project efficiently. He was then forced to ask Bill for the missing information, and Bill took advantage of the situation to impose his own views on the project. During these meetings, Bill would consistently reference the fact that he was Mike’s group leader. So, with time, Mike became convinced that Bill wanted to put him aside from the project, for reasons that were unknown to him. In addition, his MARS was approaching and Mike was really afraid that Bill would unfairly criticise him, claiming that Mike was not fully aware of what was happening in his project.

Mike insisted that the Ombuds should not contact Bill, as he was scared that such a move would worsen the situation and make his work even more difficult. Mike had spoken with Bill many times, but to no avail. Nevertheless, they still had a reasonable relationship so Mike had no intention of starting a formal procedure against Bill, although he might consider it if the situation did not improve or if it worsened.

The question is: how could the Ombuds help this situation, which obviously could not continue? Is it a case of work conflict or of harassment?

That the personal relationship had so far been preserved was a promising start. The Ombuds facilitated a discussion towards finding a solution that gives a clearer definition of the responsibilities inside the group. Mike agreed to put his harassment complaint on hold temporarily and decided to consider the issue as a work conflict. Mike volunteered to ask for a managerial meeting between the Department Head, Bill and himself, where they could discuss openly the difficulties with the organization of the group so that a solution could be found under the arbitration of the Department Head. Mike also agreed that if they had any further problems with their communication, he would suggest that the Ombuds help them seek a mutual understanding. 

At CERN, abuse of authority is considered a moral harassment. However, in some cases the line between strong leadership and abuse of authority is not as easy to define. Without speaking with Bill, the Ombuds has no way to understand the situation in a neutral and impartial way and consequently would have to presume harassment. Another way of approaching the case was then considered: forget the harassment complaint for the moment and focus on the organisational aspects.

If the personal relationship between the parties had already been destroyed, such a possibility could not have been considered. Problems of harassment should be discussed with the Ombuds as early as possible!

* Names and story are purely fictitious.

Contact the Ombuds early!


by Vincent Vuillemin