Conference launches research and guidance on supporting employees who have been complained about

Published on: Author: Ruth O'Donnell Leave a comment

A conference co-organised by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO), Queen Margaret University (QMU), and the University of Glasgow took place in Edinburgh on Tuesday 5 December. The conference explored how best to support public-service employees who have been subject to a complaint. The conference launched an SPSO report on ‘Making Complaints Work for Everyone’. It also launched the findings of a research project examining the effect of complaints on public-service employees conducted by Chris Gill (University of Glasgow), Carolyn Hirst (Independent Researcher) and Maria Sapouna (University of the West of Scotland). This post provides a report of the conference and outlines some of the key research findings.

A note of the conference

The conference was a collaborative endeavour between the SPSO, QMU, and the University of Glasgow and was aimed at public service employees and was attended by 91 delegates and speakers from the Scottish Government, NHS, local authorities, housing associations, further education, higher education, and ombudsman services. The conference aimed to bring together academic and practitioner perspectives to explore the effects of complaints on public-service employees and the ways in which organisations could support those subject to complaints.

Making complaints work for everyone

The conference was opened by Rosemary Agnew, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, who outlined the key findings of her office’s report on ‘Making Complaints Work for Everyone’.

The report focuses on the impact of complaints on staff who have been complained about. Whilst organisations are increasingly more likely to describe themselves as ‘learning organisations’, research suggests that being subject to a complaint can have an adverse impact on the individual involved and can limit, rather than promote, learning.

The overriding message that has emerged from this report is that organisations need to actively support their staff through complaints processes and engage staff in positive and purposeful activities to manage and learn from complaints. Getting this right will encourage staff, help drive improvement in services and promote learning.

Rosemary highlighted the main learning points in the report, including staff perceiving complaints negatively, often attributed to lack of organisational support, and this being at odds with leadership aspirations to be a learning organisation. Rosemary proposed that we need to create a virtuous circle where complaints are seen as useful opportunities to learn, take actions to improve services, create a positive customer experience and have positive staff engagement.

The effects of complaints on public service staff in Scotland

Chris Gill, Carolyn Hirst, and Maria Sapouna presented the findings of a recent mixed methods research project investigating the effects of complaints on local authority planning staff and housing association staff in Scotland. The research included 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.

Image: Carolyn Hirst, Independent Researcher

The key finding of the research was that being complained about affects the health and well-being of 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.

For most, the effects are moderate: 56.5% reported their work practice being ‘somewhat’ affected, while 51.6% reported their health and well-being being ‘somewhat’ affected, and 52% reported their attitude to service users being ‘somewhat’ affected. In relation to each issue, a significant minority reported being affected ‘a great deal’ by a complaint: 14.5% in relation to their work practice, 15.6% in relation to their health and well-being, and 9.4% in relation to their attitude to service users.

Image: Dr Maria Sapouna, University of West of Scotland

The types of effects commonly reported by respondents include emotional trauma and loss of self-confidence. Experience was seen as important in moderating the effect of complaints, with more experienced employees developing a ‘thick skin’ over time. Interestingly, attitudes to learning from complaints remained generally positive even where people had negative personal experiences of having been complained about.

Factors that made it more likely that a complaint would have an effect on staff included: perceiving the complaint as personal (rather than about service or the organisation); perceiving the complaint as an attack on the individual’s professional identity; and perceiving the complainant’s motivation as vexatious or unreasonable.

Image: Dr Chris Gill, University of Glasgow

The operation of the complaint process was particularly important in terms of whether staff were likely to feel a complaint had affected them negatively. Overall views of the complaint process were fairly positive, but those who reported being negatively affected by a complaint were more likely to have a negative view of the fairness of the complaint process.

In terms of the support that respondents felt would help mitigate the negative effects of being complained about, some felt that complaints were simply ‘part of the job’ and that support was generally not required except for junior staff. Others highlighted developing an open culture around complaints, managerial support, peer support, and a fair complaint process as means through which the impact of complaints could be reduced.

The role of altruism in complaint handling

Samantha Peters (University of Bath) provided insights into what promotes or inhibits altruism in organisations and why it matters for complaint handling. She drew from experience at Mid Staffs Hospital and the Francis Inquiry. Samantha highlighted that staff feelings matter because they affect altruism; people are more likely to help if they feel positive about the complainant or feel bad about the situation. Samantha observed that staff at Mid Staffs Hospital felt a high level of fear and anxiety, which resulted in some staff being unreceptive to complaints. She drew tentative conclusions from her ongoing research linking higher levels of altruism with less ‘burnout’ and fewer errors, lapses, and aggressive violations of good practice.

Supporting staff in the social care sector

Maureen Gunn (Care Inspectorate) spoke about the Care Inspectorate’s approach to supporting staff who have been complained about, focusing on the idea that no employee comes to work to do a ‘bad job’. The organisation introduced a new Professional Standards Department and is holding a future conference on how it can take a more direct role in improvements. Maureen also discussed the impact on Care Inspectorate staff who had been complained about. She concluded that where staff feel fearful, it can lead them to limit interaction with users, focus in on themselves and become unreceptive to complaints.

Employee recovery

Tina Harrison and Dhalia El Manstlry (University of Edinburgh) provided a presentation on employee recovery – ensuring the resilience of employees in public services. They talked about people not attributing failures to themselves. They also pointed out that many employees are not naturally good at dealing with complaints. Tina and Dhalia presented three aspects of service recovery: customer recovery, process recovery and employee recovery. Organisations need to support employees before, during and after a complaint, as well as on an ongoing basis. There is a need to balance the support both for the complainant and the employee.

A Human Resources perspective on supporting employees

In Ben Cork’s (Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman) presentation on the human resource dimension, he emphasised the need to clearly distinguish between HR/disciplinary processes and complaints processes, involving staff and line manager support. Describing line management as similar to being a ‘social detective’, Ben spoke about ten practical HR and Learning and Development strategies to support staff, through employee-led initiatives. These include an employee support helpline and personal and professional development such as resilience building, stress management and coaching. He pointed out the psychological effects of casework, which can include desensitisation, social withdrawal and depression. It was highlighted how, in the current political and health climate, the employer has a critical role to play in positively influencing the mental health of staff members.

A personal experience of being complained about

Image: Claire Gordon, SPSO Clinical Adviser

Claire Gordon (Clinical Adviser, SPSO) provided a personal insight on being complained about and observations as a clinical adviser. She talked about the impact on the ‘secondary victim’ – the person complained about. Being complained about can bring about a range of emotions: feeling sick, sad, guilty, distressed, upset, scared and anxious. This can result in sick leave, stress, depression, loss of confidence at work, loss of ‘joy’ at work, an impact on relationships, drug and alcohol problems, possible suspension or formal investigation, loss of earnings, loss of respect, and legal proceedings, and it can have an impact over months or years of a person’s life.


This conference raised awareness of an important and under-explored issue in contemporary public administration. Much of the debate in the past 50 years has been about an accountability deficit in public services, with public servants seen to be insufficiently accountable to their political masters and the citizens they serve.

However, there has been relatively little attention paid to whether accountability fulfils one of its primary goals: to improve public administration. There has also been relatively little attention paid to the potentially dysfunctional effects of accountability.

This conference and the research supporting it suggests that if we want accountability to function effectively, we need to understand better how accountability mechanisms (such as complaint procedures) affect members of staff. This may yield lessons about the effective design of accountability processes, ensuring they deliver better public services and support public service employees to learn from complaints.

~ Chris Gill

Dr Chris Gill is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Glasgow’s School of Law.


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