Since March, Melissa Cameron has served as ombudsman for Bayer Corp., the North American operations of German chemicals giant Bayer AG. In her role, Ms. Cameron acts as a resource to employees to help mediate disputes and provide answers about policies, ethics and corporate practices. Bayer has 17,000 employees in the United States and Canada, including 2,700 in the Pittsburgh region.
A native of Butler, Ms. Cameron joined Bayer after working as a senior attorney and director of compliance for another Bayer AG subsidiary, Medrad Inc.
Q: What is an ombudsman?
A: I'm a designated neutral party so I'm not affiliated with any particular department of Bayer. I handle employees' work-related questions and concerns. And I do it in an informal manner. That's one of the hallmarks of being an ombudsman. I'm not part of any formal grievance process. If you come to me, your concerns are reported off the record and we work through issues that way.
Q: Explain what you mean by "informal."
A: If you want to put the company on notice formally of a question or concern, you wouldn't do that through me. I'm a member of the International Ombudsman Association and they talk about four values: independence, confidentiality, informality and neutrality-impartiality. That's what I subscribe to.
Hometown: Butler; resides in Hampton
Education: Bachelor's degree in English, Allegheny College, 1995; law degree, Duquesne University, 1998
Career: 1998-2000: associate attorney, Nash & Co., a boutique health care law firm; 2000-04: legal counsel, West Penn Allegheny Health System; 2005-06: legal adviser, Bombardier Transportation USA Inc.; 2006-09: senior attorney and director, compliance, Medrad Inc.; March 2009-present: ombudsman, Bayer Corp.
Q: What are the most common concerns you hear from employees?
A: Right now I would say over 50 percent of our call volume is related to human resource-related issues: concerns about harassment, discrimination and lately I've had some concerns about insider theft. But it's important to stress that when a person comes to me, they are only alleging that a particular type of conduct has occurred. I don't want to give the false impression that 50 percent or more of the contacts are actual harassment or discrimination. In fact, more often than not, fortunately, the allegations are unfounded.
Q: How does the process work?
A: I get a call. I do an informal investigation. I have the ability to access all levels of the organization and all documents within the organization. After I do the informal investigation, I make recommendations for change. So if I find somebody does have a credible concern, let's say about harassment, I can go to their supervisor or whomever and try to put a stop to it.
Q: Do you have an actual hot line for employees to call?
A: Yes. ... It's a very old, analog telephone. It doesn't have any caller-ID on it. So it truly is confidential. I have no idea who's calling me and no idea where they're calling from. That's how they reach me.
Q: Are people hesitant to tap you as a confidante or resource?
A: Initially, they're hesitant. And I really have to talk to them and educate them on the role of the ombudsman -- the fact that their identity is held in strict confidence and that I only take action with their consent. I won't notify their supervisor unless I have their consent. So that helps alleviate some of the reticence about talking to me.
Just last week I had two individuals call me. After I talked to them and explained my role, they did feel comfortable enough to share their identity with me. They told me they would never have reported these particular matters had it not been for the anonymity assurances they were given. There were some allegations of conduct that needed to be investigated.
Q: With Bayer's diverse business throughout North America -- including consumer health, pharmaceuticals, animal health products, chemicals -- do you have the breadth of knowledge and expertise to handle such a wide range of potential issues?
A: I hope so. I think my legal career has equipped me to handle inquiries, to spot issues, to identify which law would be relevant to a particular matter. And certainly my experience at Medrad. When I was in the compliance department there, I participated in compliance officer meetings at Bayer. I came to know some of the players ... so I know who to call when things come up.
Q: Have you always been interested in ethics and compliance issues?
A: Bioethics was one of my majors at Allegheny College. I was really interested especially in medical ethics. When I was in-house counsel to the West Penn Allegheny Health System, I sat on their ethics committee. I just loved it. I think there's more than just legal compliance. I think we can do better than simply following the letter of the law. I think we can go beyond that.
Q: Have the business scandals of the past decade -- Enron, Adelphia and Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme to name a few -- made companies more eager to promote ethical discussions among employees and have ombudsmen in place?
A: Business ethics is the hot topic of the day, really. ... You hear about it at the water cooler. People do talk about it. In May we launched our online ethics training course. It contains little vignettes with ethical situations and asks, "How would you handle this? What's the right way? The wrong way?" It reinforces all the tenets in our corporate compliance policy, which is really our code of conduct. Since then I've been getting a lot of calls like, "This vendor offered me tickets to the Penguins game. Is it OK to accept?"
Q: Did you give the go-ahead for the hockey game?
A: Our policy is pretty general. It says you have to avoid conflicts of interest. So the question arises if accepting the Penguins hockey ticket is a conflict of interest? There are no hard and fast rules for this. [Our parent company in Germany] wants to put together a global policy on gifts and entertainment. We don't have that yet. The rule of thumb in corporate America seems to be that if it's under a certain dollar amount you can accept it. I think the hockey ticket was $250. I said no.
I should clarify that in health care we do have very strict rules and limits. You don't want to induce a health care professional to buy your product by giving them a gift. So you can't even give them a pen with the Bayer logo on it.
Q: Do you think your title should be changed to ombudswoman?
A: "Ombuds" seems to be the trend.
Q: How do you spend time outside of the office?
A: I renovate my house, work in the yard and play with my two crazy Weimaraner dogs. I also ride horses once a week and jump them over fences.
Joyce Gannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1580.