All relationships encounter stress, but how those pressures are dealt with can be the difference between a strong, lasting partnership or an irretrievable breakdown of communication.

This is as true in the workplace as it is in the home, which is why the ICRC’s Ombuds Network exists to hear staff concerns and offer advice, and why the Global Independent Board of Appeal (GIBA) was created to ensure fair treatment in disputes.

“The Ombuds Network is here to help any staff member who has any kind of difficulty, confusion, or even a good idea when it comes to their work environment, to find a way to communicate it or communicate through it” says John Zinsser, Chief Ombuds Officer at the ICRC. “Our fundamental job is to help people help themselves.”

The Ombuds Network is part of the ICRC’s broad staff support ecosystem that includes departments such as Diversity & Inclusion, Employee Relations, Staff Associations, the Ethics, Risk & Compliance Office (ERCO), and GIBA, all of which work in different ways to ensure staff are treated with respect in the workplace.

Opportunity starts with Listening

Too often, innovation is narrowly conceived as a new product, but this misconception can alienate those who do not work in technology or prototyping. A fundamental building block of innovation is the simple act of listening; this means creating spaces where everyone feels they can speak freely, irrespective of rank or status.

“Innovation can come from something as simple as improving the quality of listening, improving the quality of respect, improving the quality of fairness,” says Zinsser, who says his job is all about being “a human face, a connection, somebody who is going to listen to what you’re facing”.

John Zinsser, ICRC Chief Ombuds Officer

And he believes it’s something everyone in the ICRC is capable of striving towards. “If we put our time and energy into those things we will create a better organization, we will be more capable and more innovative,” he says.

The Ombuds Network functions by being independent, neutral, confidential, and informal. “If there’s one thing that separates the Ombuds Network from the other [staff support] functions, it’s our informality,” says Zinsser. “We are simply having conversations, trying to bring people together, trying to access information, so everybody has what they need to make the best choices.”

“The difference between a meeting and a conversation, is night and day,” he continues. “When you go into a meeting with an agenda you’re trying to get somewhere, and that changes how you talk; but when you go into a conversation, you don’t know where it’s going to go, and there’s discovery in that, there’s innovation in that.”

With almost 600 cases last year, the Ombuds Network is a valuable resource that is well used, but not every dispute can be resolved informally, which is where GIBA comes in.

Opportunities to Resolve Issues

“GIBA is an internal peer review mechanism,” says Benoît Hansez, Vice-Chair of GIBA. When a decision is taken by a manager and a formal notification is issued—such as a warning or a termination of employment—staff members can seek support through a determination. “This is one of the highest levels of appeal within the ICRC,” says Hansez.

As with the Ombuds Network, independence is paramount. GIBA is led by legal professionals who are all newcomers to the ICRC; the team is housed on its own separate floor within the Belgian delegation’s Brussels office.

Benoit Hansez, ICRC Vice Chair of GIBA

With his deep background in corporate employment law, Hansez characterizes GIBA as “an innovative way of resolving issues, offering employees the benefit of an independent and impartial review within the organization.”

This is valuable, he says, and offers an additional layer of protection to staff, who know an independent body outside of the organizational hierarchy exists to review their cases without bias.

Linking GIBA and the Ombuds Network is the desire to ensure staff have somewhere to turn in adversity, providing a spectrum of support (largely differentiated by formality), and an independent ear.

Providing forums in which staff can not only speak, but be heard, about their concerns in the workplace is crucial, and not just when it comes to resolving disputes and differences.

“If there was one ‘technology’ I could put out there for the whole of the ICRC, it would be a better way to truly hear each other,” says Zinsser. “We’re usually so fast, under so much pressure, that we get in our own way, and we don’t listen to each other, we don’t give each other time.”

“We don’t treat ourselves as well as we treat others in the outside world. We need to start making the choice to take care of ourselves,” says Zinsser.

And the first step is one everyone can take: listen.