Ombuds’ corner: Confidentiality

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.


 Jane* came to the Ombuds to share her concerns about the actions of Mike*, one of her senior colleague supervisors, and insisted on the absolute confidentiality. The Ombuds promised to keep the information confidential following the terms of his mandate. During the discussion it appeared that the whole group was affected by the situation, spending a lot of time discussing how to resolve the problem instead of focusing on their main responsibilities. The risks for the Organization seemed very high and could possibly endanger the safety of the operations. 

On one side, the Ombuds believed that it was essential to bring this matter to the attention of senior management, suggesting the need for vigilance, action or intervention on their part. This would be done without revealing Jane’s name or the specific information she conveyed. However, given past experience with the group, the number of people involved in the work unit, and the nature of its organization, there was some risk that her identity could become known, or at least suspected, leading to a breach of confidentiality.

What action could the Ombuds possibly take?

The Ombuds mandate specifies: “The obligations of confidentiality may be waived solely with the consent of the person(s) concerned. The only exception to this rule is when the Ombuds deems there to be an imminent threat of serious harm to person or property.” The threat was not imminent; such an exception to the confidentiality rule could not be considered.

The Ombuds suggested to Jane that she speak with Mike directly, or give him permission to have a confidential discussion about her case with Mike or with the management. She refused both suggestions, as she was too afraid of possible retaliation. However, she agreed that the present situation could not last, considering her own interests, as well as those of the group and the Organization. She finally agreed that the Ombuds could anonymously draw the problem to the attention of her senior group leader, suggesting that the whole group be reminded about the safety rules involved in the operations.

It was also agreed that, if ever any suspicion of retaliation would materialise, Jane* would contact the Ombuds immediately to discuss the situation.

Confidentiality, along with impartiality, neutrality and independence, is one of the essential pillars of the function of the Ombuds and has to be fully respected. Concerning retaliation, the Ombuds mandate specifies: “Attempted or actual retaliation against a person who contacted or cooperated with the Ombuds shall not be tolerated and may result in disciplinary action.

In some cases, the situation cannot be left unattended as risks are involved, so an informal agreement can be reached between the visitor and the Ombuds that if any suspicion of retaliation arose as a consequence of the confidential action of the visitor, he/she could immediately come back to the Ombuds to arrange other actions to be put in place.

* Names and story are purely fictitious.

Contact the Ombuds early!


by Vincent Vuillemin