Being Complained About: Putting Research into Practice

As well as providing the findings of research which provides an evidence base for complaint resolution practice, this website aims to work collaboratively with practitioners, policymakers, and researchers to identify best practice. This includes inviting guest blogs so that views and opinions can be aired and shared.

We are pleased to post a guest blog from Shelley Hutton, Head of Stakeholder Relations at Places for People Scotland, a member of Places for People (an organisation comprising more than 20 housing providers, developers, property managers and care providers). Shelley is an experienced housing professional whose career spans three decades, much of which has involved work at Places for People Scotland relating to customer and staff experience with a focus on strengthening communication and relationships.

Over the many years I have worked in housing, around twenty of those have involved some involvement in complaints handling. Effective complaints handling has become a passion of mine. My experience has included ensuring compliance with the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman’s (SPSO) Model Complaint Handling Procedures (CHP) for housing associations from when it was first introduced in 2012. And again when it was revised last year.

More recently I supported the development of a single policy and procedure for six housing and service providers at Places for People (with the necessary Housing Ombudsman and SPSO caveats for cross country compliance).

The ‘Being Complained About’ research report (by Chris Gill, Carolyn Hirst, Jane Williams, and Maria Sapouna) was presented at a conference I attended at Queen Margaret University in December 2017. I was shocked at the findings of significant impact on the health, wellbeing, and work practice of the research participants. It resonated with me because the research included people who worked at Scottish housing associations.

Before the research I was singularly customer focused in my complaint handling service design. In hindsight I did not balance that with what my colleagues needed if they had been complained about.

I heard some key facts at the conference that I share at every opportunity I get. It reminds me and those I tell that it really matters how we handle complaints about our colleagues.

  • 71% of people complained about report their work practice being affected by a complaint
  • 67.2% of people complained about report their health and well-being being affected
  • 61.2% of people complained about report their attitude to service users being affected

The research findings cemented something for me. I could see in my workplace that some colleagues’ behaviour shifted, and attitudes altered slightly. The findings also showed that 66.7% of people complained about say they become more cautious in their future dealings with the public. What I also learned is that these negative consequences can be mitigated.

I shared what I had learned at the conference with colleagues. I ran focus groups to find out about their experience and to understand how we could mitigate the negative impact of being complained about at Places for People Scotland. I found out from my colleagues how peer and manager support and good communication was key to making a positive difference when someone was complained about.

I was pleased to find out shortly after that Carolyn Hirst and Chris Gill were publishing guidance – ‘Being Complained About Good Practice Principles and Guidelines (which can be accessed here) – to steer organisations on this. We had an opportunity to feed into the drafting and Places for People Scotland became the first housing association in Scotland to adopt this guidance

As a pilot organisation Carolyn Hirst helped to launch the guidance at Places for People Scotland. This included a staff survey and workshops with middle managers. She also interviewed some of our colleagues to aid our collective understanding of the needs of people who had been complained about and to help embed change. It was very valuable to us that we were able to adapt the guidance for our own use to ensure it fitted with our HR practice.

Two of my colleagues helped to develop internal leaflets from the guidance we adopted; one to guide colleagues on what to do and what to expect if they have been complained about and a version for investigating managers. They summarise the information from the guidance into easy to read guides. This matches the sort of information we provide to customers.

This guidance now forms part of the Places for People Complaints Procedures. We add the guidance to the complaint file for easy reference if a manager is investigating a complaint about a colleague. We would like to find out from colleagues about their general awareness of the support available, if the support in place works for them and if it has resulted in better outcomes and a positive complaints handling culture. This is especially important as we are seeing more complaints about colleagues across the sector.

The research showed that it is important for staff to be listened to, be heard, and be able to give their perspective on what has happened. The subsequent guidance gives a framework for this. This practice matches how we treat customers who have complained.

Because we adopted the guidance early, we were well prepared for the amendments made by the SPSO to the CHP in 2021 on complaints involving staff. Our culture and mind set had already shifted.

We believe that ‘places work when they work for everyone’ and adding the Being Complained About Guidance to our complaints handling practice ensures this is the case.

Shelley Hutton, 3 March 2022

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