How do complaints affect those complained about? (And what can we do about it?)

By Carolyn Hirst and Chris Gill

In December 2017 we published a report, ‘Effects of Complaints Report 15 December 2017 Final‘, setting out the findings of a small mixed-methods research study investigating the effects of complaints on those who have been complained about.

Our research team comprised Chris Gill (a Lecturer in Public Law at the University of Glasgow), Carolyn Hirst (an independent Consultant and Researcher), Maria Sapouna (Programme Leader of the University of the West of Scotland’s Master of Public Administration and Lecturer in Criminal Justice) and Jane Williams (Senior Lecturer in Dispute Resolution at Queen Margaret University).

Aims of the study

The aim of our study was to investigate the effects that complaints have on public service employees. Our objectives were to:

  • identify the range of effects (relating to health, well-being, and professional practice) arising from employees being subject to a complaint; and
  • identify the extent to which employees feel included and supported by their organisation when they are complained against and the support mechanisms (if any) which are available.

We knew that most research on complaints had focused on complainants and how they experience complaint processes. Relatively little attention had been paid to the way in which complaints are experienced by employees.  Also, existing research in this area was predominantly confined to the health sector. This literature shows that complaints can have a significant impact on the health, well-being and work practice of medical staff. To date, however, there had been no exploration of how other areas of public administration and service might be affected by complaints.

“The process by which the potential impact of complaints tended to reduce with experience was described as developing a ‘thicker skin’ and becoming ‘battle worn’, ‘immune’, and ‘inured’ to complaints.”

We decided to look in this study at the complaints experienced in local authority planning departments and housing associations. This was because they represented contrasting areas of public service provision across the following dimensions: types of service users, statutory function and context, and both public and independent sector service provision.

These sectors were also chosen because they had relatively high levels of complaints to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and, therefore, represented areas where complaints were likely to be an important issue for staff.

“A strong theme in the interviews was that it was important for the complaint process to allow employees to tell their side of the story and to be listened to.”

Our research methodology, including its design and limitations, is detailed in our report Essentially, we carried out an online survey of 132 individuals who had been subject to a complaint and follow-up qualitative interviews with 16 people who had responded to the survey.

Key findings

The key finding of our research was that being complained about affects the health and well-being of these employees, their work practice, and the way they perceive service users.

71% reported their work practice was negatively affected by a complaint, 67.2% reported their health and well-being was affected, and 61.2% reported their attitude to service users being affected.

Our study also looked at organisational context, the nature of the complaint and complainant, the nature of the complaint process and the nature of the support provided – and again these are set out in detail in the report along with anonymised quotes from respondents.

“I think there have been a couple of instances where peoples’ personal Facebook pages have then been found by people who are complaining, and then what is a complaint about their professional life then spills over into their personal life. And sometimes – they’re called keyboard warriors, the people who comment on social media, they can be quite aggressive… for the individual who’s bearing the brunt of that through social media, you can’t be certain, and there’s a certain sense of threat that might exist there.”

In addition to our key finding about the impact of being complained about, other findings from our study were that:

  • For most of those who are affected, the effects are moderate, although for a small minority the effects are severe and can be long lasting.
  • Important effects of complaints include emotional trauma, loss of confidence, double-checking work, avoiding certain tasks, and being more cautious and distrustful of service users.
  • Attitudes to learning from complaints remained surprisingly positive, even where people had had negative individual experiences.
  • Organisational context is important in terms of the effects that complaints have, with planning staff more likely to report effects on work practice than housing staff.
  • Factors that appear to explain the likelihood that complaints will have a negative effect include the level of experience of the member of staff, whether the complaint is perceived as personal, whether the complaint is perceived as an attack on professionalism and whether the complainant is perceived as vexatious.
  • The complaint process was generally seen to operate fairly, although those who had been affected negatively by a complaint had a more negative view of the complaint process than those who were not affected.
  • Various aspects of the complaint process were seen as problematic by those who had been negatively affected by a complaint, including perceptions that complaint processes favour customers and are open to abuse by vexatious complainants, that there is a lack of information about, and involvement in, complaint processes, that processes are lengthy and communication is poor, and that complaint processes can lack impartiality and cause conflict between colleagues.
  • Support may be particularly required for more junior staff, and measures seen as potentially helpful include developing a positive culture around learning from complaints, managerial support, peer discussion and support, and ensuring the complaint process operates fairly.

So what next?

We have some funding from the University of Glasgow to translate the findings of this research project into practical resources. Our plan is to produce a short guidance document which will outline our key research findings, highlight the importance of the issue and recommend key measures to public service providers.

We will also produce a Model Policy Document on the approaches and actions which all public sector providers could take to help them support staff who have been complained about. This can be adapted and adopted to suit.

And we need your help to produce this Model Policy. What we are looking for are examples of what has worked in practice to support staff in these situations – and the type of actions which might be helpful.

We would like to hear from both those who have been complained about and those who have a role in supporting them – and ask that you contact before 29 June 2018 if you would like to contribute to this work.

You can find our Report at:

About the authors:

Chris Gill is a Lecturer in Public Law at the University of Glasgow. Carolyn Hirst is an independent Consultant and Researcher at Hirstworks.