Some complaints are either very straightforward or very complex. Complaints can be about individual workers or other clients, or broad policy issues. Often complaints can be about issues for which there is no policy, and so the outcome can be to produce one.

Sometimes the first issue a client raises will not be the core complaint, or upon further investigation other issues arise. Each complaint is a new journey, and like all good policy and procedures, you will want to improve it as you use it. The following is simply a guide to some of the steps involved in handling complaints well.

Step 1  Identify the complaint

If a client complains about something and you are able to respond to their satisfaction, there is no need to record a formal complaint. Complaints mechanisms should not be invoked to remove responsibility from staff to respond flexibly to client needs. However if the client remains unhappy, you can offer them a complaints process. In resolving disputes it is critical that the complaint is clear, so you will need to:

  • Ask the client to explain their concerns to you – be supportive, empathetic, and respond to their feelings as well as their thoughts
  • After you have listened to them, repeat back what you think they said to check you understood
  • Ask the client what solutions they want. How can their complaint be fixed?
  • Document their complaint and proposed solutions, and seek the client’s agreement that this is a true record of their concerns
  • Advise the client of what you will do next, and when they will get a response

Step 2  Investigate the complaint

You will need to share the issues with those implicated in the complaint and seek their responses. You will need to involve your manager or someone else in the organization responsible for handling complaints (eg Committee member). You may need to investigate organizational policy and whether there is any likelihood of the policy changing. You may need to interview other people involved and document their perspectives and concerns.

Example: The complaint may be ‘I’m not happy that you won’t let me into the refuge, even though I have nowhere to live.  I don’t think you want young people here.’ Investigating this complaint will be as easy as obtaining copies of organizational intake, eligibility and service access policies. If you don’t have these, you will need to refer to ‘standard practice’ in the organization. One outcome of such a complaint is that you will have to document these procedures so you can explain them more clearly to other potential clients.

Step 3  Resolve the complaint

The nature of the complaint determines how this can occur. If the issue is about organizational policy and procedure, then ultimately the management committee decides. You may wish to engage in some negotiation, between the client and a committee member representing the organization.

Alternatively, the complaint may be about the actions of staff or a committee person. Again, an existing Code of Conduct makes this easier to resolve.  If your organisation does not have one, you might seek to bring the complainant and the other person together to resolve the issue.  In some circumstances (eg allegations of abuse) this may not be appropriate, and other means of resolution are required.

It is important in this stage of the process to be aware of any power imbalances between the parties, and to ensure all participants have the support they require to feel comfortable through the process. In some situations, a person independent of the organization may be required to facilitate resolution of a complaint. It is extremely important that the person taking action on the complaint is perceived by all parties as fair and impartial.

Step 4  Report, record and take action

Make sure you document the resolution of the complaint, including all actions the organization has agreed to. This is not an opportunity to commit a client to particular action; the complaint is about the organization and the organization needs to respond. The client should not be punished or penalized as a result of making a complaint – most organizations find this challenging.

The record of the complaint should also be referred to the person in the organization responsible for reporting annually on the number of complaints etc. Finally, all these documents should be kept to ensure the privacy and confidentiality of those involved.

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