Ombuds’ corner: Complaint of harassment - go for an informal or formal procedure?

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.


Don* is a CERN staff member with an indefinite contract who has been working for some years on an important technical project. As the project is large, it involves pooling the efforts of many people from different Departments. Walt* is one of the Project Leaders, and is not from Don's  Department. For a long time, their working relationship was quite pleasant. Walt was satisfied with Don’s work, and on several occasions shared his appreciation with his hierarchy.

However, a dispute arose between them during a presentation to the Collaboration. Don presented things that Walt strongly disagreed with. Irritated, he criticized Don in an unpleasant manner in front of everyone, even going as far as saying Don's work was useless as it was contrary to the project strategy. Later on, Don discovered that Walt had been discrediting him with his hierarchy and had started to gossip about him with his colleagues in order to isolate him from the Collaboration, with the aim of getting him off the project. At that point, Don went to the Ombuds intending to file a harassment complaint against Walt.

After an initial discussion about what had happened, Don was not completely sure if he should follow his complaint with an informal or a formal procedure.

The choice was entirely his, as the Ombuds always remains neutral in such actions. On the one hand, Don's past relationship with Walt had been rewarding and he did not want to attack him. But on the other hand, he wanted the harassment to officially stop. Such a choice is by no means easy and all aspects and conditions of both procedures were discussed at length so that Don would have all the necessary information to make his decision.

After few days of reflection, which allowed him to take a little step back from the situation, Don came to a well thought-out decision. In both cases, the Ombuds' assistance was available: either in helping both parties to reach an informal resolution of the conflict, or in helping him with some of the aspects of the formal procedure. This support would be provided, of course, without interfering with any possible formal process of investigation.

The decision to start an informal or a formal procedure in the case of an alleged harassment is entirely at the discretion of the complainant. His/her choice should be respected. However, a discussion with the Ombuds may help people to make the decision they really want, by reaching an educated knowledge of the conditions and procedures of possible actions.

The following informal guidelines may give you some insight in order to help you know what you want to do. These guidelines can be read on a voluntary basis and are not official CERN documents:

* Names and story are purely imaginary.

Contact the Ombuds Early!


by Vincent Vuillemin