Whether it's as a result of sexual harassment, a toxic company culture, or simply being unappreciative, whistleblowing in the workplace is a sign of a bigger problem.

While employees should come forward in these situations, the fact that many take to the internet shows they have no outlet within their companies. As a result, problems go unaddressed. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, they get bigger and bigger until an avalanche envelopes the organization.

There is a simple solution: an ombudsman. Employees go to these leaders when they've witnessed unethical or otherwise questionable behavior. The ombudsman then investigates the issue and determines what to do. They exist so employees feel safe and proud to work for the organization.

Unfortunately, most companies do not have this type of role. The assumption is employees can report problems to their managers, and the information will work its way up to the right leader who can affect change.

But clearly this is not happening.

Let's take a closer look at what an ombudsman does and why you should consider hiring one for your organization:

Why you need an ombudsman

Employees are on the frontlines. For example, if they see a manager acting inappropriately, they need a way to report it. Without honest communication, leaders make decisions and policies that aren't fully informed. This means that problems go unaddressed and can even worsen.

Paul Warner, the VP of customer and employee insights at customer experience platform InMoment, pointed out that employers should collect employee feedback on both operational and environmental experiences.

An ombudsman goes a step further. When an employee has a concern they can't voice in an employee survey, they go to the ombudsman. Then that leader can work to make necessary changes.

"If employees are sticking their neck out to offer sensitive feedback, but no one is there to listen, why would they?" Warner said.

Yes, data and surveys provide powerful information to leaders. But being able to talk with an ombudsman gives employees reassurance that someone cares about them. This keeps them from venting grievances on the internet.

What to look for in an ombudsman

"An ombudsman needs to have empathy for all employees and be sensitive to anonymity where appropriate," said Warner. "He or she also has to have a data-fueled mind and be willing to stay committed to monitoring and acting on the employee feedback that's constantly offered."

It's also important for an ombudsman to have extensive experience in HR and the law. They need to remain fair, and the situations they deal with can present unique challenges.

"They ensure that, when all other measures fail, an employee's voice is heard in often egregious situations and that the organization acts in an ethical and appropriate manner," Frank Møllerop, CEO of the employee feedback platform Questback. "The ombudsman often has a very objective, logical background with knowledge on HR practices, regulations, and compliance."

Look for candidates outside of your industry. Consider people who have thoroughly studied topics like ethics and law. Professors, for instance, can make a great choice.

How to hire an ombudsman

Employees need to trust their ombudsman, so include them in the selection process.

"You should ensure small groups of team members above and beyond management are part of the interview process to get a better feel for each candidate," said Sheri Fox director of people and performance at social media advertising firm Strike Social.

Fox went on to say that it's important for an ombudsman to have experience managing conflict.

Include a mock conflict resolution as part of the interview process. Ask real employees to re-enact a disagreement they had with a co-worker. See how the candidate resolves the issue. Make sure the route they take reflects the company culture and values to assess their long-term fit.

How to introduce an ombudsman to employees

At first, employees may not understand the role of an ombudsman. They might even think this person exists to punish whistleblowers. So, it's important to explain the position and how it can impact their professional lives. Reassure employees that the ombudsman gives them a safe way to report behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Also, encourage the new ombudsman to talk with employees directly -- without executive leaders present. This individual needs to establish an earnest connection with employees, which can be difficult if the bosses are hearing every word.

Published on: Nov 30, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.