Most people assume that if you make a complaint it will be taken seriously. Shops, hotels, entertainment and other service industries don’t want bad reviews and often respond constructively to feedback. But it’s sometimes extremely difficult to get a complaint taken seriously. There are huge numbers of complaints which get nowhere. You can spend ages trying to get even a response, let alone an apology or compensation. The pressure is then on you to give up. Sadly the worst culprits are often public services who seem to have developed a fine art of fending off complainers.
There is a long list of appalling public scandals in the UK where public services have resisted and denied complaints for years at terrible cost to the victims. The list would include the Staffordshire hospital scandal, the Post Office scandal, several bank frauds, the Jersey Child Abuse scandal, and the grooming, abuse, and rape of children in towns and cities all over England which was ignored for years by social services and deemed, disgracefully, to be a ‘lifestyle choice’ of the children. Consider too the wide use of Non Disclosure Agreements to stop people talking about what’s happened to them and the appalling way whistleblowers are usually treated.
Why do organisations resist taking complaints seriously?
Some complaints are so threatening to the organisations concerned that they aren’t handled badly – they are simply not handled at all! Instead they are systematically and corruptly denied and covered up. The people involved, maybe right to the top of the organisation, as it seems to have done at the Post Office, fear it will destroy the organisation. This is clearly what’s happened in relation to many of the most appalling cases. Usually there isn’t enough evidence in the right people’s, the victims’, hands to drive the story out into the open. The organisation itself might well have plenty of evidence which would be bad enough to destroy them if it leaked but a concerted effort by the management and even by junior people in the organisation, means that files, documents, emails and paper trials can ‘go missing’. In the Post Office scandal there’s evidence that the head of security ordered the shredding of documents. How much was shredded, who knew about the order and who did any actual shredding is apparently unknown. The employees of organisations have a habit of ‘forgetting’ things or of ‘not recalling’ being told things. Unfortunately, victims usually haven’t kept a contemporaneous record and certainly don’t have a chronology of events so they’re stymied and cannot prove anything. They are left in a position of trying to recall what happened long after the actual events. Lawyers for the organisations use that, of course, to obstruct and vilify the victims, suggesting that they are the wicked corrupt ones simply seeking to blackmail the organisation. You will not get your complaint taken seriously by such people.
One good example is the current Inquiry into the Post Office scandal and what’s being uncovered slowly and with great difficulty. Another example is the way none of the high profile cases of industrial scale abuse of children around English towns ever seem to be addressed with any energy or commitment. You always hear the excuse of “lessons have been learnt” but there’s no evidence of learning anything, the scandals continue and only a couple of junior scapegoats ever seem to get punished. In these terrible cases it depends on the life long determination of one person or a group of people to take on the establishment that may eventually get a result. One such example is Anne Williams of the Hillsborough disaster. Another is Maggie Oliver of the British child sex abuse scandals. It requires total commitment.
What about less prominent cases, like yours?
Say for example you have a serious problem at work. You tell your manager what’s happened to you and take it to the Human Resources department. You assume they will support you, that you will get your complaint taken seriously and they will make sure the problem is fixed. After all the job of the Human Resources Department is to deal with employment problems. But it doesn’t always happen. The first thing to remember is that the employer pays the HR people, which is an obvious conflict of interest. But what other reasons might there be:
Confirmation bias is the tendency we all have to look for or interpret, information that is consistent with our existing beliefs. We all have an inbuilt biases to see events as confirming what we already believe. Confirmation bias can stop us from dealing with something fairly because we overlook information that is not consistent with what we already believe and like to focus on any information which seems to confirm what we do already believe. This distortion in decision making is usually unintentional and subconscious but it results in ignoring inconsistent information that contradicts our preconceptions, without our being aware of doing so. Confirmation bias is strong and widespread. People give special treatment to information that supports their personal beliefs. Amazingly, confirmation bias has been shown to distort even such technical decision making as fingerprint recognition. It has been clearly demonstrated to affect the judgements of magistrates, generals and politicians.
Confirmation bias can easily result in genuine complaints not being upheld because decision makers haven’t been trained to consider whether their existing beliefs might be influencing their decisions. Confirmation bias may make them believe that what you’ve alleged isn’t possible and so you won’t get your complaint taken seriously.
You may not be believed because you are dealing with a Human Resources department whose normal experience is a mass of trivial (e.g. ‘my boss asked me where I’m going on holiday’) or absurd (e.g. ‘my reference is bad’ when it’s completely true), complaints. They may get so many silly complaints that they discount everything and become blind to genuine ones. Amongst all the complaints, how will they identify the one that’s a real issue and, if they don’t deal with it properly, is going to blow up in their faces? When everyone is knocking on their door claiming unfair, unreasonable or even illegal activity when there isn’t any, the temptation is to assume that every complaint is unreasonable and should be fobbed off and you won’t get your complaint taken seriously.
The reverse can occur too because some unjustified complaints are successful. For example, officials can be sucked into taking crazy allegations seriously. An example is the police reaction to the complaints of Carl Beech, alleging a huge paedophile ring in the highest levels of the UK government, including an ex-prime minister, and other institutions, leading to the outrageous Operation Midland. The police behaviour in Operation Midland was shaped by their earlier failure to recognise the genuine and appalling criminal behaviour of the entertainer, Jimmy Savile, who abused children and vulnerable adults for many years with the apparent connivance of politicians, the police and other very senior officials. The police response to Carl Beech’s crazy allegations was to pronounce them “credible and true” before they’d even been investigated properly. The damaging fallout, making the police look absurd which destroying the reputations of many perfectly respectable citizens has been incredible.
You can’t overestimate how poor the quality is of some people’s work and that has to include the people who may be handling your complaint. They’re often doing jobs they can’t perform well. They’re poorly trained and ill equipped to carry out the tasks they should undertake to a high enough standard. So don’t assume your complaint will be handled properly even by people whose job it’s supposed to be. They may show very poor judgement and not take your complaint seriously.
Fear of getting into trouble
No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, especially if you are an employee working in the complaints department dealing with allegations that the boss has not behaved well. It’s easier to claim the complainant is the problem and hope the complainant will just accept the decision and go away.
Remember that when you make a complaint you may have no idea how an organisation functions and what kind of people you are dealing with. If the organisation itself or the particular individual you are dealing with are dysfunctional you’ve got a problem. By the way, one way of knowing it’s dysfunctional is if you’re invited to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement. The complaints department may be fearful of getting into trouble with their bosses.
The stakes are too high for the organisation to behave well
You may have a very serious complaint which if upheld could be costly to the organisation, in simple cash terms, quite apart from their reputational standing. The decision maker may know not to uphold it if it will hurt the business or organisation financially. Consider for example the Harvey Weinstein case in the US. Exposure of Mr Weinstein’s sexually abusive behaviour destroyed his whole business and, as a result, many careers besides that of Mr Weinstein. Those charged with dealing with complaints might be frightened of the consequences for them in terms of losing a bonus or their job. So, they will try to keep you quiet, or discredit you, to make their lives easier.
Of course, these are just a few of the reasons why you may not get your complaint taken seriously. Be aware of what can go wrong and how there are factors in the background you are probably not aware of.
How to get your complaint taken seriously?
The lesson from all this is that you must present the best evidence you can and present it clearly so that it cannot be overlooked. If you have a serious problem, record what has happened and what is happening well, in detail and diligently. Follow the basic guidelines, below, to make sure you improve your chances of being successful. The better your evidence and the more you have it gathered systematically the more difficult it is to ignore. Organisations and their lawyers know that. Using ONRECORD will help give you a huge advantage:-
- Keep records as soon as things start to go wrong. Don’t leave yourself trying to remember what happened long after the event by which time your memory is hazy and therefore could be deemed unreliable. This can be exploited by those wanting you to fail. This means you have to start recording events as soon as you can see a problem beginning to arise. Apply the ‘3 strikes rule’: One incident can be an accident; 2 similar incidents is a warning; 3 similar incidents is a pattern and you can expect it to continue.
- Keep each record as soon after the event as you can when it’s still fresh in your mind and while you can make what is called a ‘contemporaneous note’. The ONRECORD app allows you to record events wherever you are and at any time. It records not just who made the note but when, and if the location service is switched on, it records where the note was uploaded.
- Back up what you say with as much evidence as you can, such as photos, screenshots and proof of location. By using ONRECORD you’ll be able to upload all this evidence and it will be linked to the appropriate record you’ve made, keeping everything in order and easy to show.
- Identify witnesses if there are any to support what you’re saying. A good witness can be invaluable.
- Don’t part with your evidence without keeping copies of everything. Things have a habit of going missing, especially if people don’t want to confront the issue. With the ONRECORD app you share your records but never part with them. That way there’s no chance of things going astray. Always keep the originals in case you’re asked to produce them.
- You might have to take things further if your complaint isn’t successful the first time round, so if you have all your records and continue using ONRECORD during the investigation of your complaint, you’ll have the records of not only what the complaint was about and also your records of what went on during any investigation that took place. You can use those records to prove how your original complaint was handled badly or inappropriately. With ONRECORD you can separate your records into different ‘cases’. One case can be the complaint itself. Your second case can be how the complaint was dealt with. This keeps your evidence organised and enables you to pursue both issues separately and in their own right.
- Make sure you keep records with enough essential detail. Upload to the records all the evidence you have in support including letters, telephone calls, emails. Make sure you name who you spoke to, what you and they said (quote precisely if possible), any replies you got and from whom. It could be that you will have to prove your complaint has been improperly dealt with. If you’ve used ONRECORD to make your complaint you’ll still have all your records to share again quickly and easily, saving you lots of time and hassle.