In 2010, the then Director-General of CERN created the role of Ombud to provide a new and informal line of support for conflict resolution at CERN. Since then, the role has evolved and taken root at CERN, and the fourth CERN Ombud is about to take up her new duties. It’s a role that has proven its worth and is much valued by today’s Director-General, Fabiola Gianotti, who says: “CERN’s Ombud’s office is there to help people who are facing difficulties, and with several years of experience to go on, it’s clear that it is an excellent support to personnel who feel uncomfortable in the work environment. I strongly encourage people to use it. I would like to thank Pierre Gildemyn very warmly for his careful stewardship of the role and his strong dedication and wish Laure Esteveny all the very best as she takes up this delicate and crucial function.”
After a four-year term, Pierre Gildemyn is passing the Ombud’s baton to Laure Esteveny. To mark the change, the Bulletin spoke to them both.
Bulletin: Pierre, after four years as CERN’s Ombud, can you tell us what was the most striking aspect of the job?
PG: Many things have struck me over the years, but what struck me most is the resilience of the people who come to see me. People frequently come to the Ombud at the end of their tethers, but the simple act of being listened to allows them to identify solutions themselves and, above all, to find an inner strength that they didn’t know they had. It’s always very rewarding when this happens. Another recurring theme is expectations about supervisors. These are often simple things, such as a desire to be heard and to have opinions considered. People want transparency, so that even if the final decisions taken do not take their input into account, they understand why. Lastly, another recurring theme, one that my predecessors observed and is not limited to CERN, is fear of retaliation. Even in cases where just a simple action could solve a problem, people are reluctant for their hierarchy to know that they have been to see the Ombud. To me, people should not be wary of seeing the Ombud, because the role has Management’s full support.
Bulletin: So, rewarding, but not without some frustration. In the light of that, how important do you feel the role of Ombud is at CERN?
PG: I think it’s very important. At CERN, we have many support structures for personnel, but what makes the role of Ombud unique is the four elements of confidentiality, impartiality, independence and informality – particularly the latter. It’s the combination of these elements that leads people to seek out the Ombud. People who come to the Ombud do so in the knowledge that whatever’s said stays between them and won’t be used against them: the Ombud’s role is essentially an active listening role. Because of these elements, questions come to the Ombud that would otherwise remain hidden. The role is one of a catalyst, bringing out resources and solutions that already exist in some form.
Bulletin: Finally, what message would you like to leave to the CERN population as you hand over to Laure?
PG: My main message is: “Don’t put off seeing the Ombud.” Some cases that come to me have already reached a stage that makes them difficult to resolve, whereas they could have been nipped in the bud much sooner. Often when people come to me early, they say they’re not sure that they should have come: the situation is not serious enough to merit it. But it’s much better to come than to let a situation degenerate into something much more serious and difficult to resolve. There are cases of people coming to the Ombud when there’s nothing wrong: they’re just anticipating how things could evolve for the worse. This is the attitude to take: let the Ombud help you prevent bad situations, as well as remedy them when they do arise. I’d also like to encourage supervisors to come to the Ombud. That’s something that’s still very rare. I think there’s a feeling among supervisors that going to see the Ombud could be a sign of weakness. It’s not. It’s a sign of wisdom.
Bulletin: Laure, how do you feel about your new role, and what are your ambitions?
LE: The role of Ombud is something I’ve been interested in for some time now. One of my former roles involved considering the effectiveness of governance, and I became very much aware of the role of Ombud as an important element of governance. I’ve always liked to take on new challenges and learn from them. My ambition for the role? I’d like to see the Ombud become part of everyday working life, without the reticence that Pierre referred to. People shouldn’t be shy about coming to the Ombud, they should see it as a normal part of working life. I’d like it to be completely natural for people to say they’re going to see the Ombud. Conversations with the Ombud are confidential, but one shouldn’t have to hide a visit to the Ombud.
Bulletin: That sounds like quite a challenge. How will you go about it?
LE: I’d like supervisors to normalise it, to remind personnel that the Ombud is there to help, and that they should make use of the service whenever they feel it necessary. My message to personnel is: “Come and have a chat with me whenever you have a problem – just talking about it might help you find a solution.” I’d also like to say that solving conflict allows you to give your best to the Organization and, by doing so, to have a rewarding working life. Living with an unresolved issue is a lose-lose situation. You, as the person living with conflict, lose, and the Organization also loses your competence and ability. Echoing Pierre, I’d like to say: “Don’t wait. If you have an issue, come and see the Ombud.”
Bulletin: Pierre, you were nodding enthusiastically as Laure was speaking, would you like to react?
PG: This was very much my ambition when I started. I wanted to lower the threshold of going to see the Ombud, and I tried to do that partly through my articles, where I explained the process and tried to make it as normal as going to see the doctor if you have a cold. I think we’re moving in the right direction: when people come to see me, they have an increasingly better understanding of what the Ombud does. The concept is well known, perhaps a little less among users, but that’s something we’re working on.
Bulletin: Is that an important message too?
PG: Absolutely, the Ombud is for everyone.
Bulletin: So Laure, what’s your last message for today?
LE: I’d like to thank Pierre for being a very good teacher. I’m lucky to have benefited from a productive hand-over period, and I have learned a lot – the most important lesson being not to spring into action. My role as Ombud is to listen carefully and, as Pierre said, to act as a catalyst for solutions. Rather than finding solutions myself, I have to help people find solutions within themselves, and that’s an important distinction. Another important revelation has been to discover how passionate Ombuds are about their jobs. I have been introduced to both local and European Ombuds’ networks and, without exception, they’re all fervent believers in the value of what they do. Pierre, you told me it’s the best job you’ve ever had.
PG: Yes. For me, it’s the best job I’ve had in my life, the cherry on the cake. I spent most of my career in human resources, dealing with personnel within an institutional framework. What is fantastic about the role of Ombud is that we’re talking about individuals. I was very lucky to have the job, and I’m very confident in Laure’s ability to take it forward.
Bulletin: Thank you both very much.
The Ombud can be found from Monday to Friday in office B500/1-004 on the Meyrin site, except on Tuesday mornings from 20 April when she will be in office B865/1-C012 on the Prévessin site. To make an appointment, in person or online, send an email to email@example.com.