Ombuds’ corner: Fear of retaliation?

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.


Val* joined CERN a few years ago on a limited duration contract. He is now entering his fourth year at CERN and hopes - given his excellent results, his important technical responsibilities and his good periodical assessments - to be granted a long-term contract. The position he holds is considered essential in his Department and must be filled either by someone on an indefinite contract or by rotating personnel with limited duration contracts. Given his capacities and experience, Val considers his chances of getting an indefinite contract for the position quite high, should such an opportunity arise.

Recently, while giving a presentation in front of a large audience, his supervisor Brian* publicly criticized the validity of his work and his commitment to the Organization. Val was very surprised and did not react on the spot, and decided to let the comments go.

His surprise only increased when Winston*, his Group Leader, called him in the next week to tell him that such events could jeopardize his future should something similar happen again. Val tried to explain the event from his point of view. Although Winston heard him out he did not add anything to the discussion, giving the impression that he was unconvinced by Val’s reasoning.

Val started to seriously worry about his future and began to feel that his hierarchy was looking for a reason – unknown to him – to push him aside. Thus he decided not to settle this point with them directly. Unavoidably, his preoccupation with his job status grew to the point where it affected his efficiency; this only served to escalate his worry and very soon Val began to suffer from depression.

His close colleagues advised him to go and discuss the matter with the Ombuds. Val hesitated for a long time: Would his visit be public knowledge? Would his supervisors see a visit to the Ombuds as an attack against their hierarchical power? Would he be able to stay in charge of whatever actions would be taken? Wouldn’t he just end up being caught between a rock and a hard place? Could he inadvertently cast doubt on his intentions, which could be harmful in an interview for an indefinite position? All the questions spun through Val’s head as he decided that his present situation could not continue.

The Ombuds listened to Val’s concerns and reassured him about the confidential nature of the meeting. They then discussed several options that Val could follow by himself. They agreed that if new elements or pitfalls presented themselves whilst Val took a new approach to his work environment, he would get back in touch with the Ombuds.

The Ombuds mandate says: “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 addition, the Ombuds keeps names and cases strictly confidential, and does not start any action without the agreement of the person who called on his services. Everyone stays in control of the actions he/she would (or would not) like to take. Retaliation for visiting the Ombuds is thus avoided. Abandon your fear of retaliation, as it will not occur at CERN – come get advice from the Ombuds.

* Names and story are purely imaginary.

Contact the Ombuds Early!


by Vincent Vuillemin