The Art of Handling Complaints

Highlight #14, 1-20-15

Dear Colleagues,  

Last week our school completed work on a new grievance policy. In our discussions we explored what constitutes a grievance, what is the difference between a grievance and a complaint, and what principles should guide us in dealing with them.

We came to a simple definition that a grievance is a formal complaint usually lodged by an employee, related to an action that was taken (or not taken) that affects the rights of the employee. Something is perceived to have happened that violates the law or the policy of the organization. So a grievance is a specialized complaint. How one responds to a grievance is important because it generally has legal consequences for the organization.

Complaints, on the other hand, are types of feedback provided by anyone in the community who thinks or feels that something isn’t right. Complaints might include “too much homework,” “tuition is too high,” “meetings go too long,” “the place is messy,” “communication is sloppy,” etc.  A complaint generally includes two wisdoms – it tells us something about the person complaining (what they are aware of and what they would like to see improved) and something about the organization. While sometimes a complaint is entirely the personal opinion of an individual (“I don’t like the color of the walls”), usually a complaint contains some bit of helpful reflection to be attended to.  And it provides an opportunity to strengthen relationships by being responsive, timely and direct.

There are a few core principles for dealing with complaints in general and for dealing with complaints in a collaborative community.   

• Understand that all complaints contain some insight, either about the organization or about the person complaining or both.

• Have clarity as to what types of complaints should be addressed to different leaders.

• Provide every complainant with the opportunity to share what he or she wants to see done.

• Create an environment that embraces and accepts complaints without resistance.

• Assure there is a clear visible process for dealing with complaints that provides

    • immediate acknowledgement

    • quick response

    • timely follow-through

    • clear communications and

    • thorough documentation.

  • Develop a process so that everyone clearly knows what to do with complaints.

  • Analyze complaints to look for themes and bigger-picture problems.

Here is a checklist developed by One World Trust for NGO’s to assess the strength of your organization’s complaint process.  (LINK) 

Every complaint is both an opportunity for the organization to grow and for the relationship of the complainant to the organization to develop. This requires active, open and non-judgmental listening and honest reflecting. It is an area where we have a lot to learn in our communities. 

Keep in touch,