Staff Memorial to Dag Hammarskjöld at UNHQ. © UN Photo Lois Connerun.

Informality: the hidden treasure in conflict resolution
A reflection on the principle of informality from an ombudsmans’ perspective.
1 Mar 2023

Few people know that the United Nations affords its managers and staff the opportunity to discuss their workplace concerns, informally and amicably without prejudice to their rights in pursuing formal recourse. Even if they are vaguely aware of its existence, most personnel may not realize that informal resolution of workplace conflicts facilitated by the Office of the UN Ombudsman and Mediation Services (UNOMS), provides opportunities and options that are not available when using formal channels. This article will focus on the informality principle, what it means, and why it is important, from the perspective of an organizational ombudsman within the UN system.

Informality has several meanings and may mean different things in different cultures. For an ombudsman or mediator in the UN context, informality refers to a process which falls outside formal channels and is very distinct from any other mechanism for the handling of workplace conflicts. Pursuing the informal track allows for off-the-record conversations with a conflict resolution specialist to gain perspective and to explore options. When approaching an ombudsman, no special procedure is triggered; the ombudsman has no decision-making authority, no representational or advisory role, and no stake in the outcome. What makes the informality principle unique and effective are its inherent and indissociable linkages to the other three principles practiced by an ombudsman, that is, confidentiality, neutrality, and independence. All four principles are connected and essential to each other.

Informality in practice

While the formal system relies on a rights-based and evidence-based approach to determine findings and outcomes, informal engagement by the ombudsman is centered on dialogue and on the power of listening. I have learned first-hand in my practice as an ombudsman and mediator that resolution in conflict is perhaps not the most important or viable outcome. What seems to be more important is the need to be heard and understood, and the need to feel respected – an informal conversation with an ombudsman offers the time and space for a pause and for self-reflection.

An informal conversation with an ombudsman, who is independent, confidential, and neutral, helps visitors to crystallize their thoughts and clarify the narrative(s), separate the issues from the people, and even gain a different perspective on the issue. Sometimes that very process is all that is needed for greater understanding and empowerment for the visitor to act. The following quote from a visitor helps to illustrate this point:

“The conversations I have had with you have helped me to rebound from my emotional nadir and set me on a path of emotional recovery […]. These conversations have not only contributed to my re-orientation towards a healthier and more productive work life, but they have also made me a better person.”

Therefore, what the visitor gains through the informal process, is the potential to broaden perspective, shift mindsets, enhance competence to navigate problematic interactions, and achieve outcomes; none of this can be ordered by a judge.

Effective communication achieved through the power of talking and listening.

Essential linkages between the formal and the informal

Another unique feature of the informal approach and the role played by UNOMS is illustrated in the Staff Regulations and Rules. Staff Rules encourage staff to pursue informal resolution first with help from UNOMS, without prejudice to their right to pursue matters formally. There are provisions in place allowing for the management evaluation of complaints and for proceedings at the UN Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) to be held in abeyance pending informal resolution efforts. It is only when UNOMS is involved that such deadlines may be extended, which testifies to the special role played by the Office vis-a-vis the formal system.

When the clock stops in the formal system, and UNOMS is engaged in informal resolution efforts, there is real opportunity for dialogue, irrespective of outcome. Informality allows for greater latitude in coming up with innovative options for resolution of matters within the parameters of the rules, whereas in the formal process, the outcomes are restricted to the legalities involved and may not address the underlying needs of the parties. Informal resolution allows the parties to think outside the box and feel free to explore all options on the table because there is no rule that binds them to a particular approach.

The informal track is also quicker. There is a greater chance of early resolution of disputes because the parties are engaged directly without the burden of presenting evidence and tedious paperwork. The following testimonial illustrates this notion:

“What began as a misunderstanding and became a conflict, was fully resolved through the Office of the ombudsperson [sic]. And the fact that I had not taken legal action, which would have been contentious and did not feel like the right thing to do, though it may have been fair, was not required. It is a fantastic example of why the ombudsperson [sic]exists and made me very happy that she does. […]”

Informality provides protection for the parties because what is said cannot be used in the formal process, should the matter proceed to the UNDT. It provides a safe space where concerns are discussed outside the courtroom in a confidential and ‘off-the-record’ setting.

The Versatility Factor

Another added value of informal intervention by UNOMS is that it offers a range of options for engagement. Depending on their needs, visitors may opt for conflict coaching if they need to prepare for a difficult conversation, or if they need support in considering how to navigate a difficult working relationship. Some others may be interested in a mediated discussion with a manager, a peer, or an organizational representative. In situations where the visitor is not comfortable engaging directly with the other party or parties in the conflict, the ombudsman will shuttle between the visitor and the relevant parties, as needed.

Compassion, dedication and understanding are words which often come up in testimonials from visitors. Perhaps this recent feedback from a visitor describes the essence of the informal approach, the hidden treasure. Hidden, because many do not know or appreciate its value. Treasure, because it provides a holistic approach focusing not just on the problem, but also, and foremost, on the people involved.

“And in the end not only was I served, but I even had the opportunity to help the Service [office where the conflict arose] which I had felt had been disrespectful of my pleas for understanding. Indeed, as a UN employee, it made me quite happy to turn a bad and distrustful feeling into an opportunity of mutual benefit […].”

* Lara Khalife-Dagher is the New York Regional Ombudsman.
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