Dealing with complaints

About complaints

As a school leader, you will find yourself receiving and dealing with complaints from time to time. You may have to deal with a complaint on behalf of another person on your staff. Or it might be about you, or the school in general. Complaints will vary from minor to major, and may escalate rapidly from one to the other unless they are well managed.

These suggestions for dealing with complaints have been summarised from an online discussion held by a group of New Zealand secondary school principals.

Complaints might emerge from many quarters: students, staff, parents, and even members of the public. They could be about students, staff, you, the board, your school policies, or school events. Some you might be ready for, others will come out of the blue and surprise you. The point is to have a process ready to follow for whatever turns up.

If you're new to the school, check whether there's already a policy for dealing with complaints. If not, develop one. Don’t leave it until the first complaint lands on your desk. Your policy needs to conform to best practice and be open to legal scrutiny. Look at the relevant contract clauses for teachers and other staff members.

One principal suggests you “… deal with the complaint at the lowest level possible. An escalated complaint is like a hurricane; the more emotional the heat, the more ferocious it becomes.”

The points below can be incorporated into a complaints' policy.

When you receive a complaint

a. Listen

  • Let the complainant have their say. Make it clear that you have heard the complaint. Say something like, “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll follow this up and get back to you by …” Name a time that is easy to achieve and contact the complainant with your progress report towards resolution of the issue.
  • Make the complainant feel that you value their coming to you. Do this even if they are angry. Remain calm even if what is being said seems unfair. You are the one in control of the situation.
  • Write down the specifics of the complaint. You might need to get the complainant to pause while you gather things to write with.
  • Check back that you have the details right. If it seems appropriate, ask them to write down the complaint as well, so that you can compare what you have written with what they said. Keep this written documentation safe, as you may need it later.

b. Investigate

  • Depending on the nature of the complaint, you will probably not need to respond straight away, other than to thank the complainant for letting you know. However, if you deem the complaint to be 'serious' (for example if it involves the safety of a child or staff member), you may need to take immediate action before you can begin an investigation. This may involve the removal of a person, or contacting external support. Do not assume blame on anyone’s part until you have gathered all the facts.
  • Make a judgment call about the time you need to give to dealing with this complaint. Is it something that you can leave for a little while, or something that requires 'nipping in the bud' now? Ask yourself what the consequences of not dealing with the complaint immediately are likely to be.
  • It is possible that the complainant will want an instant response. Reassure them that you will give them a response as soon as you have had time to consider it. Use this time to assess the gravity of the complaint, and then you can prioritise it. Don’t leave dealing with it for too long, though. Small issues can grow out of all proportion if they are not dealt with smartly. The priority scale you might use will probably be: now, later today, tomorrow or the day after, rather than next week.

c. Inform where necessary

  • Let everyone (who needs to) know what is going on. Any staff member who is the subject of a complaint must be told about it and any likely investigation of it as soon as the complaint is received.
  • Keep those who are affected informed about what is happening (especially if the investigation takes longer than expected). Clear communications will help people to feel confident that you are handling the situation appropriately.
  • Procedure must be strictly followed or you might find yourself in an employment-related situation. There has been at least one case where a person was not told of a serious accusation until several weeks later, after an investigation had been carried out to determine whether an offence had occurred. Because of this procedural omission, the person was found not guilty in court and the board was required to pay the person $40,000.
  • You should call on the assistance of one of the many advisory groups available to help you follow this procedure correctly – these are NZSTA, School Support Services, and your sector representative group.
  • Taking too long to act invites speculation and encourages those who don’t need to know to become involved.

When you have the evidence

  • Keep a record of everything.
  • Consider all possible resolutions and possible unintended outcomes. You might want to discuss these with a trusted colleague.
  • Meet with the complainant to convey your decision or to discuss the options for resolving the issue.
  • If the complaint involves two parties (that is, one person complaining about another person) you might need to decide whether to bring the parties together to try to achieve a resolution. Depending on the seriousness of the complaint, you might need assistance to plan and manage this process. Again, use one of the services available to you. However, in more difficult cases this may not be an option.
  • Make a decision. Acknowledge any ‘errors’ made, if necessary. Ask the complainant whether he/she is happy with the outcome. If not, offer further options that may be taken.
  • Follow up with a letter to the complainant detailing the discussion, the agreement (if any) you have reached, and the intended actions.

Is it a complaint?

  • It is not always obvious when someone is making a complaint, so be alert to this possibility. Ask, “Are you making a complaint?” and make a note of the response you receive. Complaints can be made in the form of 'softly presented' expressions of concern about something or someone. These can often be missed by busy principals and grow in seriousness. If this happens, a complainant could justifiably say, “I asked you to do something about this 6 months ago!” However, you don’t want to be over-reactive, so seeking clarification at an early stage is important.
  • If it seems ‘tricky’, don’t hope it will just go away. It won’t.

Involving the board

If the complaint is made to you, use your judgment. Try to achieve resolution at the lowest level possible. Don’t involve the board unless you feel you are going to need help.

If you think things might escalate, advise the board chair of the measures you’re taking so that he/she will not suddenly be surprised by what has become a major concern. You may also need to alert the school’s insurer if the complaint is ‘high level’ - for example, if it could become a personal grievance case.

If the complaint is made to the board, it’s not your decision. You will play whatever role the board requires of you. For example, you might be asked to gather and pass on the evidence. If you collect and present the evidence, natural justice says you should not be involved in any judgment – let the board make the decision.

If the complaint is about you, the board must handle it without your involvement, but with your knowledge.

What would you do?

Here are some real-life complaints. In light of this guide, consider how you might deal with each one.

Student complaint: A student has written a letter of complaint about his teacher, had all his class mates sign it, and given it to the principal.

Parent complaint: The board has received a written complaint from a parent about the actions of Mr Higgins (a teacher). It states that while on playground duty, Mr Higgins separated two students who were fighting. Mr Higgins allegedly then marched one of the students to a corner of the playground. The student was verbally abusive and Mr Higgins took a bar of soap from his pocket, stood the student over the drinking fountain, and washed the student’s mouth out with the soap.

Multi-complaint: While waiting to pick up her child on a Saturday afternoon, a parent was smoking in her car. The groundsperson asked her to not smoke within the school grounds and the discussion that evolved included much swearing and abuse. Each party has complained to the principal about being abused by the other. Each story is different and each wants some form of action against the other party.

Resources for dealing with complaints

Difficult conversations

Managing difficult conversations is a skill principals need in numerous situations. This book might be useful for you:
Patterson, K., Grenny, J. et al. (2002) Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. New York: McGraw-Hill.

See also: dealing with employment complaints and their legal implications

Feedback form

One principal uses this format to get feedback from parents on the school’s handling of complaints. A form is sent out to a complainant after the matter has been dealt with.

Recently you brought an issue to our attention. [Issue is described]. To ensure we have dealt with it effectively, please let us know by answering these questions:

  • Did you feel you were listened to?
  • Did you feel comfortable about approaching the principal/staff member, or other school representatives?
  • Do you feel happy with how we resolved the issue?
  • Do you think there is anything that we can do to improve our system?

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