The Link Between Ineffective Complaints Handling and the Use of the Whistleblowing Protections (Part One)

Published
16 May 2019

As discussed in our previous School Governance article, an unmanaged complaint or internal grievance can escalate into a whistleblowing situation if the concern is not effectively managed.

Differentiating between External Grievances and Internal Complaints

The first step in managing external complaints and internal grievances is to differentiate between the two.

Your school’s complaints handling procedure is intended for use by non-staff such as parents and members of the wider school community whereas your internal grievance processes, which are generally established as part of your Human Resources Program, are designed for staff to raise internal personnel-related concerns including serious issues such as harassment, discrimination or bullying. Separating these processes can assist in effectively managing these issues, while also ensuring compliance in relation to your differing obligations to both internal stakeholders such as staff and external stakeholders such as parents.

Differentiating between Types of Complaints

Complaints can be categorised into two concepts: lower-risk complaints that are related to your school’s operations or approach and higher-risk complaints that could lead to whistleblowing if the complainant is not satisfied with the management or resolution of their complaint.

Examples of lower-risk complaints include:

  • a disagreement with school and individual teacher decisions
  • unfair treatment
  • selection decisions relating to sporting and related groups
  • minor environmental concerns.

Examples of higher-risk complaints include:

  • health and safety issues
  • significant environmental threats
  • fraudulent corrupt practices such as bribery, illegal conduct, or improper conduct such as concealment of corruption.

Complaints Management Framework

To ensure that your complaints handling procedure has the best chance of managing complaints and avoiding their escalation, reference should be made to the International Complaints Handling Standard ISO 10002:2014 and the Australian Complaints Handling Standard AS/NZS 10002:2014. Despite the fact that these standards have the same number they are in fact different standards. For an explanation of this oddity please refer to CompliSpace's article. There are also a number of other useful publications relevant to complaints handling that are mentioned in that article.

By way of example the Ombudsman New South Wales Complaint Management Framework promotes three levels of complaints handling. The key to implementing this framework is to ensure that there is a focus on resolving the majority of complaints at “Level 1” and rarely needing to escalate complaints to “Level 2”. A strong complaints handling program will support your school in resolving all Level 1 and 2 complaints effectively.

  • Level 1: Frontline complaint handling and early resolution
  • Level 2: Internal review, including further investigation and activation of alternative resolution dispute options
  • Level 3: External review of complaints.

Strengthening Your School’s Complaints Handling Procedure

In CompliSpace’s briefing paper Complaints Handling in Non-Government Schools, we discussed some key concepts of complaints handling:

  • Complaints Handling Framework, Planning, & Design
  • Managing a Complaint
  • Record Keeping, Reporting and Corrective Action.

Within these frameworks, we also discussed the factors that contribute to a strong complaints handling procedure, ensuring that the majority of frontline complaints are resolved, and that escalations are managed appropriately. Underpinning these factors are some key points to note as set out below.

Ensuring Awareness

Your complaints handling procedure will only be effective if it is accessible to your target audience, along with being easy to follow and understand. If your school is within a multilingual environment, we recommend ensuring that your policy is also available in any relevant languages as well.

To support ease of use and accessibility, the Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission also recommends that complaint handling procedures include the following:

  • a description of the types of issues and complaints that your policy covers
  • an outline of the options available for resolving complaints
  • examples of possible outcomes
  • assurances of confidentiality and impartiality
  • processes to ensure that complainants are kept informed when there are any updates or resolutions.

Appeal Process

Including a clearly communicated appeal process within your policy can help encourage all parties to work towards a successful resolution of a complaint. Supporting this, the Commonwealth Ombudsman encourages a follow-up procedure where complainants are given the opportunity to request a review. Their recommended review process includes:

  • an initial discussion where the relevant school complaints officer explains the findings in greater detail to the complainant
  • if the above does not satisfy the complainant’s concerns, a more senior complaints officer who has not been involved should conduct a review of the complaint and resolution process
  • following this review, the complainant should be invited to discuss the findings and, if required, be advised of further options for internal resolution
  • if the complainant requests further review beyond internal processes, providing information about external review procedures and mediation.

Continuous Improvement

Quality Area 7 of the National Quality Standard (NQS) recommends that complaints be used to reflect on opportunities for improvement of internal practices, programs and team performance. Effective utilisation of the National Quality Framework also promotes improvement of your complaints handling process through:

  • regularly reviewing outcomes and process to ensure that your complaints policy remains current and relevant
  • updating your policy to suit changes within the education sector
  • focusing on consistently achieving satisfactory outcomes.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman also promotes continuing training and learning for complaints officers. Effective training includes a comprehensive program that incorporates initial training and ongoing development, including:

  • when given the role of Complaints Officer, staff should be trained in your school’s complaints handling procedures
  • further supplementing this initial training should be specific training in managing aspects of the complaints officer’s role, such as record keeping skills, dealing with difficult behaviour, protecting the privacy of complainants and the process of escalating complaints.

Preparing Your School for the Upcoming Changes

To ensure that your school is prepared for the upcoming whistleblower changes, we recommend that your school implements a strong complaints handling procedure, as well as a robust internal grievance procedure, as part of your first line of defence. These procedures needs to be relevant and accessible to relevant stakeholders. Continual improvement, including training and feedback for complaints officers, will further support your procedures and processes to remaining effective.

Click here for Part Two of this series.

Emily Pankhurst

Emily Pankhurst is a Risk and Compliance Associate at CompliSpace. She has completed a Business degree, majoring in Human Resource Management at QUT, along with a Graduate Program in Operations Management. She has also worked in policy and compliance across a variety of sectors, including Education and Operations Management.