10 Keys to Effectively Handling Campus Complaints and Complainers

As the new department chair, you are pleased when a graduate student comes to you to discuss her career. That pleasure fades, however, when you find that the conversation is not about choosing between job offers, but about a consensual affair she says she has been having with a faculty member up for tenure. The student says she had been trying to end the affair, but the faculty member has resisted, even threatening to delay her degree. Although she says she has talked to every member of her committee as well as the student advocate, she refuses to file a formal complaint or let her name be used for fear it will damage her career. However, she suggests to you that the faculty member does not deserve tenure.

Unfortunately, handling complaints is an unpleasant part of the job of an academic administrator, and it is one that must be done regardless of comfort level, says C.K. (Tina) Gunsalus, author of The College Administrator’s Survival Guide. Academic administrators must learn their own conflict style and how they can work within this style to set boundaries on the amount of time they’re available to meet, the topics that are in-bounds for the conversation, and the boundaries of privacy and confidences within the role the administrator occupies, she says. These are skills that take practice and the formation of habit, just like a surgeon learns to wash his or her hands regularly to prevent the spread of germs.

In the recent online video seminar Basic Guidelines for Handling Complaints, Gunsalus outlined the 10 key guidelines for handling complaints. These include:

  1. Don’t take it personally: Avoid the temptation to take complaints personally and become defensive. Find out what action the person making the complaint expects from you; perhaps listening is all that is required. Keep your demeanor calm and courteous.
  2. Never act on only one side of the story: Many problems stem from differences in perceptions. As you collect information, keep your stance neutral and remind people you are gathering data in the face of a problem presented to you.
  3. Nobody knows what everybody knows: If someone tells you “everyone knows” something, it is a good idea to drill deeper into the facts of the case. Often, things that some believe are common knowledge have little basis in truth.
  4. When in doubt, leave it out: If you are thinking better of making a statement or putting something in writing, don’t do it. Emphasize facts and decisions, not opinions and motives.
  5. Never attribute to malice that which incompetence will explain: Most bad things happen not through nefarious intent but through inattention, inaction, or miscommunication. Ask for clarification of facts, and repeat back what you have heard until you get it right.
  6. Say what you’ll do, and do what you say: Just as giving a screaming child a candy bar trains that child how to get a treat, you can also train adults to behave inappropriately if you break the rules out of pressure or desire to have the problem solved. Let the person know the plan of action and its timeline, and stick to it.
  7. In the absence of facts, people make things up: If you leave people hanging for a long period of time waiting for the next step or response, they will imagine the worst. Stick to your time schedule to alleviate this kind of worry.
  8. Keep notes: Notes can serve as everything from reminders of your action plan to facts required for a lawsuit. Only four things belong in notes: the date, who was present, the facts brought to you, and the action you promised. Leave out speculation, analysis, and thoughts.
  9. Trust your instincts: If you have an anxious or fearful feeling about a situation, don’t hesitate to call in someone else to help handle the situation properly with the appropriate boundaries.
  10. Some problems require formal process: It is possible that most of the problems brought to you will require only a calm ear to listen. However, some situations, like reprimands, discipline, and terminations, will require formal action. The more complex the problem, the more likely it will require a formal process. Acquaint yourself in advance with the resource people on your campus.

Unfortunately, it is part of administrative life to have to handle conflict. But with a little advanced planning and practice, you will be ready for the situations that occur.