Ombuds’ corner: Disputes may be beneficial

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.


Sam* has been working in his position for many years. During his annual interviews with his group leader Jerry*, he was always told that his job performance was satisfactory, and no criticism was raised. Sam really appreciated Jerry’s fairness and was happy to work with him. The written appraisals were in the same tone, so Sam never imagined that something could be blamed on him. His career level was improving, although not as fast as he would have liked it to.

To begin with, Jerry had some doubts about Sam’s capabilities, but preferred to wait and see if the situation would improve by itself, counting that Sam’s expertise would improve with time. Later on, it turned out that Jerry had so many other challenges that he could no longer find the time to closely monitor Sam’s performance. Consequently, when the annual interview came, he did not feel that he was in a position to make any specific remarks about Sam’s slowness at work and so filled out Sam’s appraisal with satisfactory comments to hide his lack of coaching.

During the same period, Jerry counted on Sam’s colleagues to keep the group running smoothly. Finally the situation reached the point where Sam’s presence in the group was not necessary, so Jerry abruptly informed him that he was no longer needed and that he should find another job at CERN. Sam was flabbergasted and found this decision to be completely unjustified and arbitrary, as his work had always been considered to be at least at a satisfactory level, if not higher. He then filed an informal complaint with the Ombuds against Jerry for abuse of authority. The dispute was open.

Both parties accepted mediation, during which Jerry told Sam of his shortcomings. It was a real shock for Sam but he understood the comments, and understood how he could overcome his weaknesses in order to favour his career. He consequently regained his enthusiasm for his job, so he went back to work at full speed.

Jerry did not like being confronted by Sam, but made an effort to understand that he should have pointed out his criticism of Sam’s work a lot sooner, as he now saw the disastrous consequences of his non-involvement. He decided to spend more time with his supervisees in order to coach them more effectively. His subsequent appraisals were more fair and balanced, pointing out specific topics of concern.

Although it was hard for both of them to face the true facts, they finally realized that it was in their own interest. The Organization won on both counts.

In general, if all disputes are avoided or suppressed, CERN may ignore wrongs and injustices that leave the aggrieved parties frustrated and bitter. Therefore, in an Organization where breaches of the Code of Conduct and possible harassment can happen on occasions, disputes may play an important role towards positive change, provided that favourable solutions are reached for both the people involved as well as the Organization itself.

* Names and story are purely fictitious.

Contact the Ombuds early!


by Vincent Vuillemin