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Two Types of Experts can help you to create a socially safe work environment

Social safety is a broad concept for organizational climate, ranging from a strong culture in which people can hold others accountable, to transparent, accessible complaints procedures and establishing clear boundaries for conduct. Overstepping these boundaries is never acceptable.

Under the Dutch Working Conditions Act, "social safety in the workplace means knowing and feeling assured that you are protected from inappropriate unaccepted/ behaviour and from the threat of danger as a result of human actions in or in relation to the organisations."

Who can bring a socially safe work environment to your organization?

Confidential Advisor (Vertrouwenspersoon) and OmbudspersonThe demarcation between the role of a confidential advisor and the role of an ombuds differs between institutions. There are different types of confidential advisers. Some focus on many more topics and are very similar to an ombudsperson, while other confidential advisors have very specifically defined tasks.

What does the Confidential Advisor do?

Provides a confidential resource for employees who are faced with undesirable behaviour, such as (sexual) harassment, aggression, violence, bullying, discrimination, or if the person is accused of such behaviour. The Confidential Advisor is basically a listening ear who offers support and helps to find a way to end the undesirable behaviour. They can also help to file a formal complaint with the complaints committee for undesirable behaviour.

What does the Ombuds Officer do?

Provides an informal confidential resource, who works independently. Employees can contact the ombuds among others for (structural) problems with cooperation, bottlenecks in certain procedures, incorrect and or unreasonable treatment or actions of persons or agencies within the institution. The ombuds can mediate between the parties and conduct an independent investigation if she considers it necessary. An ombuds officer can also, for example, deal with undesirable behaviour in the event of complaints about cooperation or the working climate.

The diagram below, drawn up by Paul Herfs (Utrecht University) [1] shows a number of examples of types of issues that can be dealt with by a Confidential Advisor for Undesirable Behavior and a Personnel Ombudsperson in a Dutch academic system.

The distinction between the two functions lies not so much in the type of issues as in the way in which issues are dealt with: Role and Activities. In principle, the confidential advisor is partial and supports the reporter/ complainant in tackling the problem. The ombudsperson is impartial and can play a mediating role between a reporter and the accused.

The confidential advisor focuses on the individual reporter/ complainant while the ombuds officer always remains impartial and acts as an ombuds officer for both the reporter and the accused, whereby the ombuds function takes a broader view and advises on underlying improvements that go beyond the individual report.

The diagram describes the main differences between a confidential advisor and ombuds officer, in practice, however, the interpretation of these functions differs per institution. For example, cooperation problems or working climate, mentioned in the column of the Ombuds Officer, can also include bullying or intimidation. Being able to investigate also makes the ombudsperson different from the confidential adviser.

The most important that Confidential Advisor and Ombuds Officer are complementary, they are not competing positions!

What is your thought about the two functions?

1]. Author of the diagram: Paul Herfs, Utrecht University, May 2019, with thanks to Henri van Montfort (chairman of the Network University Confidential Advisors), Lies Poesiat (chairman of the Association of Ombudsmen for Higher Education)

Herfs, P. G., & Teppema, S. (2014). Ombudsman Personnel: An asset to higher education. THeMA: Journal of Higher Education & Management, 21(2), 48-52.

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