Ombuds’ corner: stuck between a rock and a hard place? Try an open discussion!

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.


Greg* is a student at CERN doing his doctoral thesis. His thesis adviser, Wilbur*, resides in a remote university and does not come to CERN very often. As a result, he and Greg interact mostly by phone or e-mail. Greg only gets the chance to speak to Wilbur face-to-face when he flies home or when a general meeting for the project is held at CERN. At CERN, Greg is under the supervision of a Section Leader, Phil*, who is responsible for the overall part of the project for which Greg is working.

After two years, Greg delivered his second written report outlining his past activities as well as future ones needed to finish his doctoral thesis. Soon after, he was called by his CERN supervisor, Phil, who told him that his work was not up to the required level and that many elements of his study were still missing. Greg then argued that Phil had been overloading him with lots of additional tasks within the project and that, as a consequence, he did not have enough time in his schedule to meet his thesis objectives. Phil then insisted that Greg’s thesis was a personal responsibility and that the additional tasks he had required from him had priority and should be considered as a normal part of his job as a CERN student. This problematic situation further escalated when Greg’s thesis adviser called him to say that he was not so satisfied with the progression of Greg’s work, and that he had also received complaints from Greg’s CERN supervisor about him. His time was really running short, as Greg had already spent two years working on his thesis.

Greg then came to the Ombuds to share his dilemma: either he would work on the required CERN activities and might miss his thesis deadline, or he would concentrate on finishing his thesis, taking the risk of increasing the possibility of conflict with his CERN supervisor. What to do? Were these the only possible two solutions?

Through the discussion with the Ombuds, Greg decided to ask Phil and Wilbur to attend a joint meeting where the requirements of the thesis would be revised and agreed upon. There he would ask Wilbur for a short extension of his PhD deadline and for part financial support during this additional period. Such an arrangement would allow Greg to fulfill his priority goals as defined by his CERN Section. Phil agreed to attend the meeting and promised to support Greg in his request to Wilbur.

Situations where two different lines of management are present are not uncommon. The same problem might arise for people working in a Project, led by a Project Leader, while still belonging to the chain of the CERN line management. Conflict may arise in cases where there are different opinions about whom to report to, for example to the Project Leader or the Supervisor. The only solution is that all parties - student or staff in the project, Project leader, and CERN Supervisor - work together in a transparent way.

* Names and story are purely imaginary.

Contact the Ombuds Early!


by Vincent Vuillemin