Office of the Ombuds Takes on Bullying at State

A decade after its establishment, this office is finally getting funding to address bullying and incivility.

Straight from the Source


The following is a true story of conflict conquered in a country that shall remain renamed. … In the faraway Kingdom of Kabau, the U.S. embassy’s public affairs (PA) section was plagued by all the markers of an ineffective and undesirable workplace: outbursts, shouting, lack of adherence to boundaries, and failed communication.

The PA section had a dozen staff members, was within a midsize embassy, and was under constant pressure because of high-level visits to this popular and prominent kingdom. The o„ce leadership was exasperated, without solutions; and these issues were negatively affecting their ability to deliver on their mission.

Does this situation sound familiar? If so, you can do what the embassy in Kabau did. They recognized that temporary fixes were not enough, and to find a long-term solution, they needed to get some outside, objective support. PA leadership contacted the O„ce of the Ombuds (S/O). S/O staff listened attentively, assessed the situation, and swiftly identified an action plan.

Leveraging their expertise in mitigating workplace conflict, S/O staff scheduled several one-on-one coaching calls with members of the PA team over the next few weeks. S/O then traveled to Kabau to meet with the full PA section, conducted skills-building sessions, facilitated conversations, and provided specific recommendations on the positive path forward. Following the monthlong intervention, staff described feeling “supported and trusted,” and the next VIP visit was a conflict-free success.

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The Department of State’s mission at home and abroad is complex and challenging, involving stressors that can lead to workplace conflicts and issues that necessitate a robust internal conflict resolution resource. The Office of the Ombuds (S/O) handles workplace conflicts that are not currently in a formal process and provides an array of services to benefit all department personnel, including direct hires, locally employed staff, employed family members, and contractors. The purpose of an ombuds is to provide opportunities for individuals and organizations to harness problem- and conflict-solving skills to unlock their collective potential.

The position of Ombudsman for Civil Service employees was established at State in 1995 to ensure the ability of Civil Service employees to contribute to the achievement of the department’s foreign affairs responsibilities and to represent the career interests of Civil Service employees. Over time, the goals and responsibilities of that position evolved and expanded.

In 2014 the Office of the Ombudsman was established and was intended to include a Workplace Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center (wCPRc). Until now, there were no resources dedicated to stand up the wCPRc. This year will see a consequential new change: S/O has been provided the resources necessary to staff the wCPRc to address bullying and incivility in the workplace. (In 2023 the title of “Ombudsman” was officially changed to “Ombuds.”)

Addressing Workplace Conflict

Workplace conflict is broadly defined as any disagreement that disrupts the flow of work. All offices may—at any moment—experience workplace conflict; professional conflict in the Foreign Service can be especially poignant and, when left unresolved, equally destructive. The prevalence of multiple agencies with related (albeit varied) core mission statements coexisting in a U.S. embassy or consulate—sometimes a building with antiquated technology and/or unreliable HVAC and/or lacking ample office space for a growing workforce—in a foreign country can exacerbate challenges that may lead to conflict both inside and out of the office.

S/O offers support and resources to informally address such conflict at the interpersonal, organizational, and systemic levels. S/O has four guiding principles—that its work is confidential, informal, impartial, and independent. Its mission is to promote conflict prevention and resolution in the workplace. It is an independent and impartial resource for department personnel seeking early reconciliation and assists personnel to work toward mutually agreeable solutions.

How does S/O work? On the interpersonal front, S/O staff and the ombuds herself engage in conflict education, mitigation, and management at the earliest opportunity and the lowest possible level to enhance workplace communications, collaboration, and culture. To address organizational concerns, S/O provides skills-building sessions and conducts climate surveys and analysis to help organizational leadership with information, options, and tools to effectively address workplace conflict issues. With a broader, systemic view, S/O also collects and analyzes data, tracks trends, and develops proposals for institutional change as an adviser to senior department leadership.

Workplace conflict is broadly defined as any disagreement that disrupts the flow of work.

For example, if an individual or a post reaches out for assistance, S/O may begin with one-on-one conversations with affected parties to figure out the root of the problem. If appropriate, a facilitated conversation could come next, giving each a structured and respectful environment to try to move forward in a positive direction. If it becomes clear that the effects of interpersonal conflicts extend well beyond two poorly communicating colleagues, S/O may provide further services. These could include consultations and coaching sessions or perhaps an office or missionwide climate survey, gathering information on what is working well and where there are challenges for the team. When S/O conducts a climate survey, it analyzes the information and provides insights and actionable recommendations that acknowledge challenges, ensure individuals’ voices are heard, and address the underlying causes of conflict.

S/O staff members have received extensive training in conflict management, coaching, mediation, and other means of alternate dispute resolution. The team is small but growing, and it is having a positive impact across the department. In 2023 S/O provided services to more than 500 individual department personnel at all levels, conducted 22 climate surveys, visited a dozen countries, and delivered numerous presentations, training, and skills-building sessions domestically and abroad. In a survey of its individual clients in 2023, more than 90 percent expressed their satisfaction with the services received, and more than 80 percent stated they’d recommend S/O’s services to others.

A “Zero Barrier” Office

Why is confidentiality so vital? Fear of potential retaliation can often limit one’s willingness to come forward and seek assistance with workplace conflicts. When that happens, conflict can fester, bad behavior can go unchecked, and it can negatively affect others in the workplace. For these reasons, S/O strictly adheres to its principle of confidentiality, which allows for frank and honest engagement.

For example, names of those who engage with S/O and communications they have with the staff are kept confidential, shared only with the permission of the client. Likewise, information gathered during climate surveys that identifies issues, relays feedback, and provides recommendations is relayed to leadership in a way that is nonattributable.

The goals of S/O include minimizing and mitigating conflict and helping those with whom they work to bring about positive change. Staying true to the principles of confidentiality and impartiality is essential to achieving those goals. As a result, S/O has a unique ability to serve as a “zero barrier” office for personnel across the department, where they can get support without fear and without judgment.

S/O staff are not advocates for individuals or for management; nor is the office an investigatory body or enforcer of action. Rather, the S/O team serves as an independent resource for personnel at all levels to find the best path forward for themselves and for the mission.

Staffing Up to Prevent and Address Bullying

In 2024 a key goal of Ombuds Jeanne M. Juliao is to fully staff the Workplace Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center. Thanks to the support of senior department leadership, that goal is about to be achieved. According to Ombuds Juliao: “Fully staffing the wCPRc is a vital part of the department’s strategic effort to address conflicts rooted in failed communications, bullying, and incivility.”

In his Feb. 1, 2024, email to staff, Under Secretary of State for Management John R. Bass emphasized that State is committed to maintaining a workplace where everyone is treated with respect and dignity. Respondents to last year’s Stay Survey were clear, he added, that the department needed to do more to hold employees accountable for misconduct. Additional professionals are being added to S/O, he stated, and the office will work closely with the Bureau of Global Talent Management (GTM) and with the Office of Civil Rights (S/OCR), which oversees the department’s Anti-Harassment Program as well as its Equal Employment Opportunity Program. The three offices will work together to determine the right resource to address concerns about bullying, harassment, and accountability.

S/O has a unique ability to serve as a “zero barrier” office for personnel across the department, where they can get support without fear and without judgment.

An anti-bullying policy, including a definition of bullying, is being published in the FAM—it will be 3 FAM 1540—which will help ensure consistency in addressing the issue and underpin the rationale for any disciplinary action taken, Bass explained.

Once staffed, the wCPRc will function within S/O as an independent and impartial resource for department personnel dealing with non-EEO-related workplace conflicts, seeking to address behaviors like bullying through informal means. In addition to S/OCR and GTM, they will work with other stakeholders, including bureau executive offices across the department, providing direct services to clients, offices, and missions worldwide to promote prompt, informal resolution of workplace conflicts and address the effects of workplace bullying.

As part of its proactive approach, S/O has been integrated into regularly scheduled courses at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). In addition, it partners with FSI’s Leadership and Management School to incorporate possible solutions to commonly heard concerns into fundamental courses, such as the deputy chief of mission and principal officer course and seminar, human resources and management tradecraft, and Civil Service orientation. At each of these skills-building sessions, S/O underscores the value of conflict resolution as well as direct and effective communication, which may begin with leadership but can be strengthened and harnessed by all personnel.

The Office of the Ombuds is a critical resource for all department personnel seeking to develop prompt, informal solutions to workplace conflict. Its impartiality and confidentiality create a foundation for candid insights, a requisite for productive conflict management. While workplace conflict may be inevitable, it is not insurmountable. Armed with specialized skills, the support of department leadership, and strong cross-bureau partnerships, S/O is assisting the State Department to become the best and most productive version of itself.

Contact the Office of the Ombuds through its confidential email box at

Brianna Bailey-Gevlin joined the State Department Foreign Service in 2017. After completing two tours (in Lagos and Bridgetown), she transitioned to Civil Service and now works in the Office of the Ombuds. Her spouse, Sarah, is an FSO currently posted to Copenhagen. They have one child together.


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