If there's one thing in business that's inevitable, it's squabbles between co-workers. Put a group of people together in a high-pressured office for 40-plus hours a week and hostility about missing food in the fridge and loud telephone conversations is bound to flare up. Usually such minor disagreements blow over quickly with little or no intervention by the boss. But sometimes, they can spiral out of control, poisoning the whole office or, in an extreme case, prompting a lawsuit.

For years, universities, government agencies, and large corporations have enlisted organizational ombudsmen to provide a confidential ear to employees. The idea is to nip disputes in the bud. Now a growing number of small and midsize businesses are turning to these counselors-for-hire as well. In fact, these companies may need them the most. Large corporations, after all, can always dispatch bickering co-workers to different departments or buildings, notes Dina Beach Lynch, founder of WorkWellTogether.com, a Boston-based consulting firm that provides ombudsman services to businesses with between 2 and 500 employees. In a smaller office, reassigning someone probably isn't an option.

Dealing with conflicts between employees was becoming increasingly difficult for Alan Siggia, co-founder of Sigmet, a company based in Westford, Mass., that designs data processors that turn weather radar signals into graphic displays used by meteorologists. Siggia, an electrical engineer by training, is the head of hardware engineering at the 10-person company, but he had also taken on an unofficial role: office mom.

"The struggles people were having were beyond what a well-intentioned but untrained person like me could handle."

When squabbles erupted over job duties, work habits, or dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, Siggia and his partner Richard Passarelli, Sigmet's president and meteorologist, fielded the complaints. The cofounders did their best to mend conflicts, but by this past summer, they were beginning to feel overwhelmed. Even a disagreement about whether a product was ready to ship could lead to a grudge match between co-workers. "The struggles people were having were beyond what a well-intentioned but untrained person like me could handle," Siggia recalls.

In August, an acquaintance at the Harvard Mediation Program suggested that Siggia enlist an ombudsman and referred him to Lynch. Since then, Lynch has spent a few hours a week at Sigmet, popping into everyone's offices to ask how things are going and counseling people who are vexed. Lynch listens to their problems, asks questions, and helps employees devise solutions. If an employee is fed up with a colleague who constantly offers unsolicited opinions, for instance, she might use a hypothetical conversation to illustrate the right way to ask the offending co-worker to stop. The sessions are kept entirely confidential--Lynch won't name names unless there's an imminent risk of harm to the company or a person--which encourages workers to be more honest than they might be with Siggia or Passarelli. Employees who want even more privacy can also call or e-mail Lynch to arrange a meeting outside the office.

Besides resolving problems after they arise, Lynch also helps identify company policies that are creating them. For instance, she recently informed Passarelli and Siggia that fuzzy job descriptions were driving employees crazy and fueling an ongoing turf war. The partners are now crafting well-defined job descriptions and reviving performance reviews, which fell by the wayside years ago.

Sigmet will pay Lynch $50,000 for six months of ombudsman services, which includes 15 to 20 hours of consulting a month. It's money well spent, according to Passarelli, who devoted about 30% of his time to refereeing office conflicts before hiring Lynch. "How you handle a difficult conversation makes a difference in how well you sleep at night," Passarelli says. "It consumes a lot of energy, and energy is the most important resource we've got." Siggia is also relieved to be spending less time dealing with squabbles between staffers. "In subtle ways, that might affect how I feel about an employee later," he says. "Ideally, I'd take off all my other hats and put on the conflict-management hat, but you can never do that perfectly."

Happy Together

An organizational ombudsman is helping Sigmet nip employee disputes in the bud by:

  • Asking employees nonthreatening, open-ended questions that get to the heart of their concerns.
  • Using hypothetical conversations to teach staffers how to communicate well with co-workers.
  • Keeping discussions with employees confidential to encourage total honesty.
  • Alerting management to company policies that are creating strife and suggesting changes.


Resources For more information about Dina Beach Lynch's ombudsman services, along with tips on dealing with cranky and needy employees, visit WorkWellTogether.com.