Ombudsperson Carolijn Winnubst
‘Embrace the intervention’
Not everyone was happy when she started her job.
Sure, the university council kept insisting on an independent entity that UG staff could turn to to complain about feeling unsafe at work and other abuses.
And her first annual report has proven that she meets a need; 103 UG employees came to new ombudsperson Carolijn Winnubst to talk about harassment, discrimination, a lack of social safety at work, or unequal treatment. Another twenty-seven students went to her, mainly to complain about the guidance they’d received.
‘People who come to me obviously have faith in my position’, Winnubst smiles. ‘But that doesn’t mean that everyone welcomed me with open arms. When I intervene, it’s because something has gone wrong. Not everyone likes being confronted with that.’
Students and staff can turn to her with complaints about procedures that are unclear, such as people seemingly getting promoted out of nowhere while others have been waiting for years, about abuses of power, such as supervisors screaming at team members, or sexually inappropriate behaviour. In short, structural problems within the organisation that get in the way of a healthy and safe learning and working environment.
The first report is a coincidence, the third is a pattern
When Winnubst first gets a report, she asks around to see if other people have similar experiences. ‘I always say: the first report is a coincidence, the second one is a signal, and the third is the start of a pattern.’
She’ll ask for emails or other documentation to corroborate the story. She might talk to the company physician to check whether a department has a high rate of absenteeism. She’ll then try to solve the issue, for instance through a supervised meeting with the people involved. If they consent, of course.
But if she feels the situation warrants it, she may also decide to document everything. ‘In the end, de-escalation works in 95 percent of the cases. Escalation due to unsolicited advice or an investigation, is fortunately much rarer.’
But in the case of the latter, she sends her ‘unsolicited advice’ to the level above the one affected by the issues. It details what’s going wrong and what can be done about it.
Unfortunately, not all managers are chomping at the bit to follow her advice. Sometimes, they don’t do anything. Sometimes, they only implement part of her recommendations. As she says in her annual report, it’s a challenge. Because how is an organisation supposed to learn when it doesn’t properly pay attention to such recommendations?
‘See, there are different ways to respond’, says Winnubst. ‘You might also embrace the opportunity and welcome the fact that people speak up and that someone is trying to intervene.’
Since she started her position in 2021, she’s sent her unsolicited advice to four departments. She won’t say which departments, though, nor how many of her recommendations were implemented. She does state, however, that the ombudsperson regulations should be adjusted, forcing managers and boards to take her non-binding recommendations seriously. ‘It would be a good idea to make a written response within six weeks mandatory, something that tells me how the department will proceed.’
It would also lead people to have more faith in coming forward and make it easier for them to report to her, she writes.
However, she emphasises that people do take her recommendations for improvements seriously. ‘Things are slowly changing’, she says. ‘The fact that people don’t know about me also plays a role. Besides, the organisation is definitely in favour of someone responding to these problems. Because people have certainly been signalling them.’
But why wasn’t anything done?
You could also embrace the fact that people are speaking up
Sometimes, it’s unclear who is responsible for solving particular issues. As Winnubst writes in her report, she’s missing a coordinator. Supervisors also tend to lack the empathy, integrity, and the ability to reflect that the UG says they need.
But some scientists simply aren’t very good at talking, Winnubst has noticed. In addition to her job at the UG, she also runs a mediation practice. ‘When you ask a child what’s going on, they’ll answer you right away’, she says, laughing. ‘But some scientists are just stuck in their own bubble. They love talking about their field and their passion for science, but simply aren’t great at actual conversations.’
She was surprised several times when people forgot meetings or simply didn’t show up because their planners didn’t show it right. That never happens in her mediation practice. ‘I consider it a sign of how much people don’t want to be there.’
Let’s not forget about internationalisation. Intercultural aspects, she says, play a role in a ‘substantial number of cases’ that people bring to her. Having a different cultural background makes already difficult communication even more complicated. ‘With some exceptions, it’s striking how little awareness there is of this at the university’, the annual report says.
‘Here in the Netherlands, it’s already a big deal whether people are from the north or from, like, Limburg. People from different countries will be fundamentally different. It’s just that those differences are beneath the surface.’
People from different countries will be fundamentally different
She gets the impression that internationals at the university are expected to just know or understand Dutch mores. ‘But some of them are at complete odds with what people are used to. How to treat your supervisor, for example, or going after something yourself.’
There’s also not enough awareness of how much moving abroad impacts people. What if someone gets a temporary contract, with the promise that if they performed well this would become a permanent one, and their supervisor suddenly decides on another temporary extension? ‘I have to figure out what exactly was said. Or maybe something happened in the interim? A proper onboarding process is really important; these people have packed up everything and moved their family to the Netherlands.’
If leadership was more responsible and there was a functional aid structure in place, there would be more time left to tackle structural issues and do independent research. As ombudsperson, she has that authority, unlike the confidential adviser. ‘I’d love to study what kind of legal protection students enjoy’, she says. ‘But I haven’t had the time yet.’
Does she think that will change?
She laughs. ‘What I want is for my job to contribute to an organisation that can learn. That would mean my unsolicited recommendations or investigations are taken as constructive criticism and lead to lasting change.’
The thing she needs to achieve that, is independence. Fortunately, she has it. And while this year the board of directors got access to her annual report before the university council and the employee organisation did, that won’t happen again next year. ‘I’m learning, too.’
Another requirement is support from the organisation as a whole. ‘I’m working hard on getting that done. And I’m cautiously optimistic.’Carolijn Winnubst is available during her office hours at the Oude Boteringestraat 71. You can also email or call to make an appointment.
Confidential adviser or ombudsperson?
Students and staff can turn to either the confidential adviser or the ombudsperson in case of trouble. Both are independent and will process your complaint in complete confidence. But there are some fundamental differences between the two.
Partial/impartial: The confidential adviser is partial by definition. She’ll listen, provide advice, and will help you solve your problem to the best of her ability. In this, she’s always on your side. Conversely, the ombudsperson is impartial. That allows her to supervise or mediate meetings aimed at resolving problems. The confidential adviser can’t do any of those things.
Individual/structural: The confidential adviser is there for individual support. She’ll help you find a workable solution for your problem. The ombudsperson’s role is more broadly defined and focuses on structural problems and choke points. She also analyses regulatory issues.
Passive/active: The confidential adviser only focuses on problems people bring to her. She can confront supervisors when she suspects abuse, but she doesn’t go looking for them. The ombudsperson is more active. She can issue unsolicited advice to the organisation if she feels it’s necessary. She can also start an independent investigation if she suspects abuse.
And if you knock on the confidential adviser’s door when you should have gone to the ombudsperson? The two are in close contact and will refer cases to each other – with people’s consent, of course. The most important part is to come forward if there’s a problem.