Ombuds’ corner: Do not put things under the rug!

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.


Due to his technical expertise and a mastery in his domain of activity, Jim* was nominated supervisor of his Unit at CERN. In fact, he was considered perhaps the only person who could face, along with his team, the great challenges of a very complicated technical development, and succeed in overcoming all the difficulties.

Jim really believed in his strategy, so he developed on his own a solid plan of action He set strict milestones for the project and the ways to operate, so that the overall project could be done on time and budget. Of course he counted on everyone in the team to be fully dedicated to his master plan. His management applauded his work and was confident that they had made the correct choice, although they knew that Jim did not have any experience leading a team of so many people and handling all the associated human communications.

In the beginning, everything went well. But later the usual difficulties linked to any project started to show up: the late deliveries of materials, a few mistakes in the blue prints discovered after construction, the breakdown of some equipment, and a large increase in some raw material costs. What’s more, several people became ill during the winter. It became obvious to Jim that the plan would have to be revised, which he saw as a dangerous threat to his own image.

Scared of being dismissed as manager and fearful for his career, Jim started, almost unconsciously, to use every possible mean to defend himself. He could no longer accept suggestions, as he saw them as critiques. He refused any modification to the schedule, asking for more and more work from his team. With time, he became aggressive in meetings and people did not dare talk or react, in the hope of making the situation a bit quieter. Jim then accused them of being totally inefficient and amorphous, and systematically refused to approve vacations. Quickly everybody lost their enthusiasm for the project, and sick leaves started to increase dangerously. The situation came to the point where Jim’s high technical abilities could no longer balance the destructive effect of his abrasive and bullying behaviour.

Jim’s upper management was very hesitant, as they had no one to replace him and, furthermore, they did not know what they would do with him if they removed him from the project. They spoke with him on various occasions, trying their best to make him aware of the situation. At the same time, they were also covering him from the complaints of his team. As a result, they had reassured Jim that his way of handling the situation was correct and that he should adopt a harder management style to drive this project to a successful end.

What would you think happen in the end?

Jim burned out, his team was totally discouraged and the project was in jeopardy. If taken in time, there are positive actions that can prevent such a situation.

Whenever cases of abuse are known, the hierarchy has to act promptly. If not, the parties in question will get a feeling of immunity, which will reinforce their harmful behaviour without any risk at all. Not only will they not be offered any chance to improve their behaviour but, even worse, such behaviour – if covered by an umbrella of immunity from their upper management – may escalate, ruining their career and destroying the careers of collaborators. Is it best to consider coaching these abusive people before it is too late!

* Names and story are purely imaginary.

Contact the Ombuds Early!


by Vincent Vuillemin