Unreasonable Complainant Conduct

The problem

“Public organisations deal with many thousands of complainants each year, most of whom act responsibly. These organisations also deal with complainants who have come to the end of their tether. Some are justifiably disappointed and angry because they have suffered harm through no fault of their own. Some may have been treated unfairly or disproportionately without reasonable explanation. Some may have been given incorrect information or advice that they relied on to their detriment or may have suffered substantial losses as a result of an improper decision that was made against them. Yet, despite these setbacks, these complainants are able to manage their frustration and anger and productively engage with the systems, processes and people they are interacting with.

Other complainants, however, do not act so responsibly. Their anger about their complaint or its outcome is often translated into aggressive and abusive behaviour towards the organisations and staff handling their complaints. These complainants threaten harm, are dishonest, provide intentionally misleading information or deliberately withhold information that is relevant to their complaint. Some of them bombard organisations with unnecessary telephone calls, emails and large amounts of irrelevant information or insist on things they are not entitled to and outcomes that are clearly not possible or appropriate in the circumstances. At the end of the process, these same complainants are often unwilling to accept decisions and continue to demand further action on their complaints even though they have exhausted all available internal review options.

It is also very common for this category of complainants to lose perspective and change the focus of their complaints from the substantive issues and the people or organisation(s) responsible for them, to allegations of incompetence, collusion, conspiracy and corruption against the case officers and organisations that they have approached to resolve those issues. As such, it is not uncommon to find that their complaints have grown over time and have been unnecessarily escalated to multiple organisations at the same time – where they re-enter the complaints cycle all over again.

In a nutshell, these complainants behave in ways that go beyond what is acceptable from people, even when they are experiencing a wide range of situational stress.”

[Extract from Managing Unreasonable Complainant Conduct Manual (NSW Ombudsman, 2012)]

A joint approach

The NSW Ombudsman, in conjunction with other State and Territory Ombudsman offices and the Commonwealth Ombudsman, has undertaken a project to develop publications dealing with unreasonable complainant conduct.

A central feature this joint approach is the shift in focus away from the difficult person to the person’s conduct. A number of trigger behaviours have been identified and organised into five broad conduct categories, with the defining characteristic being that the conduct is unreasonable: unreasonable persistence; unreasonable demands; unreasonable lack of cooperation; unreasonable arguments; and unreasonable behaviour (anger, aggression, threats). This allows the formulation of a number of specific strategies to enable us to better manage on a case-by-case basis our response to complainants when their conduct becomes unreasonable.

It must be emphasised that the mere fact that a complainant is persistent, makes demands, or may be angry does not mean that their conduct is unreasonable in most circumstances. Unreasonableness requires the conduct to go beyond the norm of situational stress that many complainants experience and can be identified using objective measures. It is our experience that only a very small percentage of complainants display such unreasonable conduct, nevertheless, dealing with them consumes a disproportionate amount of resources.

The approach focusses on shifting the culture of complaint handling so that dealing with difficult complainant behaviour is seen as part of the core function of a complaint handling agency, not just an occupational hazard or interruption to the normal routine, an imposition or a nuisance on the periphery of core work. Such conduct must be dealt with by staff who are well trained, resourced and supported by endorsed official policies and detailed guidelines so that they can confidently make decisions in their interaction with complainants whose behaviour is difficult.

Overall, the aim of the approach is to minimise the effect of unreasonable complainant conduct on the process of complaint handling and resource management, thus ensuring equity across all complaints handled by Ombudsman offices. It also aims to minimise both staff stress and possible detriment to the interests of complainants who engage in unreasonable conduct. And finally, it aims to achieve consistency of practice across all Ombudsman offices.

For further information click on the following links to the NSW Ombudsman website: