TWS Conference to provide ombuds service for the first time

For the first time, this year’s TWS Annual Conference will provide conference goers with ombuds services to help provide a safe, welcome and inclusive conference for attendees.

Jen G. Sims will serve as ombuds at the conference in Spokane, Washington, where she will be available to serve as an independent, neutral, off-the-record, confidential resource for attendees to discuss any concerns regarding conference behavior and activities. Her office will be located in the Ballroom 111 Show Office.

The action is being taken to support TWS’ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Vision in an effort to make the conference a comfortable place for all attendees.

“The role is for me to be a confidential resource for folks to come and talk to if there are any uncomfortable situations that they find themselves in and want someone to talk it over,” Sims said.

TWS Council has discussed including an ombuds for a few years, but the decision was delayed after COVID precautions shifted the conference from in person to virtual. Council is considering making the position a year-round one to handle any concerns that develop outside the conference setting.

“I think Jen has a lot of experience and is really passionate and knowledgeable about the ombuds office,” said Jamila Blake, TWS’ professional development and inclusion manager. “I think she’ll be a great way for TWS to step into this space and take more action in creating safe and inclusive spaces at our conference, and hopefully, year-round.”

This is part of a growing trend of organizations turning to ombuds positions to try to provide greater responsiveness to DEI concerns.

The hope is “to have a person that was independent, could be spoken to in confidence, but at the same time be neutral and provide information and a listening ear and a safe place for people to seek assistance and discuss concerns regarding conflicts like microaggressions, harassment of any kind, conflicts of interest,” said Council Rep. Pat Lederle, who sits on the Council diversity subcommittee. “In a Society like ours, there’s always what I would view as conflicts that can bubble to the surface—power differentials that make some people or some groups uncomfortable. If you have an ombuds working for the organization, they can serve to help identify what those issues are in advance so Council can make decisions or take actions to try to circumvent those problems before they become detrimental to the Society.”

Sims is no stranger to the position. She runs a consulting business in Austin, Texas, focusing on conflict, coaching and ombuds work. Previously, she was the staff ombuds office for the University of Texas. Her practice emphasizes informal methods to address concerns, using observation, deep listening, inquiry, sense making and assessment of patterns to uncover possible responses. She won’t have authority to investigate issues, but she will be able to provide feedback to Council on the nature of any issues raised or observations about systemic issues relating to the conference without violating confidentiality.

“We’re a safe place where people can come and talk about what their options are,” Sims said. “That makes them more comfortable with taking the next step, whatever that is.”

TWS member Gael Sanchez is glad to see the step being taken. She has advocated for the ombuds position for years.

“I’m excited that this will be offered,” said Sanchez, who is president-elect of the Michigan TWS chapter. “I think it’s something that is needed and could make some real change and lead to safer and more professional conferences. That doesn’t mean you’re talking the fun out of it in any way. For the people experiencing harassment, it’s not fun.”