May 31st, 2011

Handling Complaints: Advice for Academic Leaders

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Handling complaints is one of the defining roles of academic administration. It demands perseverance, good listening skills, tact, and adherence to institutional policies and legal requirements. In an interview with Academic Leader, C.K. Gunsalus, author of The Academic Administrator’s Survival Guide (which includes an entire chapter on complaints), offered advice on how to manage this important role.

Q: Handling complaints might be something that is new to some administrators. How can they prepare for it?

Gunsalus: The first preparation is to know and be comfortable with yourself and why you’ve gone into this line of work. How do you fit in the institution? What are you hoping to achieve through this service? Because if you don’t know why you are doing it or how you feel about what you can contribute, when the problems arise, it’s much harder to get through them comfortably and intact. That happens through introspection and conversation with those selecting you for the position.

The second is the conceptual skill of understanding that there will be complaints, and however much it seems personal and however much somebody claims it is a personal thing, you have to see the complaints as simply part of the role. It’s important not to overpersonalize the situation, even if somebody says, “You are the worst thing that ever happened to this department.” It’s going to feel personal because it’s going to be framed personally, but it’s about the decisions you are making in pursuing the role that you have accepted. That’s an intellectual process, because it’s never going to feel good. You simply have to understand that it’s part of the role to make decisions and that there are going to be complaints.

A third way to prepare is to become familiar with what resources are available, because dealing with complaints is not an individual sport—it’s a team sport. So you need to know the resource people who can help you figure out the proper procedure to apply to each complaint, because you handle a complaint about access to parking with a different process than you handle a sexual harassment complaint, which requires a different process than does a research misconduct allegation, which requires a different process than does failure to promote or a racial/sexual discrimination complaint or a complaint of capricious grading. You have know who to ask to help you navigate the policies so you know the proper process to follow.

Q: In your book you mention the need to hear at least two sides of an issue. What about those instances where you feel pressure to make a decision but you don’t feel you have the time to get the full story?

Gunsalus: The first thing I would say is, “Let’s get a grip,” because there are a lot of situations in which people will come to you and say, “This is an emergency.” They may feel very stressed and demand an immediate resolution, but there are few situations that are true emergencies. A true emergency is when someone’s safety is at risk. If you need to do something without full process, it needs to be clearly stipulated that it’s an interim step while the process unfolds.

Here’s an example. If there is an allegation of research misconduct that involves data fabrication, the first thing you do is get proper advice and support. There are times when the proper procedure is going to involve securing data so that an investigation can be done. Very few people have to do this, and they usually don’t have to do this by themselves. There is typically support from the research integrity officer or the university counsel, but they may have to be a part of the process that restricts access to the laboratory and the primary original data until copies can be made so the work in the lab can continue while the investigation uses the primary data. That’s a short-term process. If you have living organisms, there has to be care for that while the process in going on. Etc. If you don’t have time to hear at least two sides of a story, you are not going to be able to make a sound decision.

Q: What advice do you have for documenting complaints?

Gunsalus: When you take notes, there are things that belong in there and things that do not belong there. You should record only factual elements. You should never record what you think, because it is hard enough if it comes to a legal process to defend what you did. The last thing you ever want to do is to record your thoughts so you have to defend those as well.

For more on this topic, you might be interested in a seminar Gunsalus led titled “Basic Guidelines for Handling Complaints.” Learn More »

Reprinted from “How to Handle Complaints.” Academic Leader, 26.5 (2010): 6.