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Feb 21, 2022

The sublime art of complaining

Many students, staff and faculty do not know how to complain well. People should defend their rights, and it is important to know how to do it effectively. Make is easier for the administrator you are complaining to to be more helpful. 

1. You need to know what you want to achieve, what would be an adequate resolution for you. If you just want an apology, say so. If you want your problem fixed – say which one and what would be an acceptable solution. Iа you don’t want what happened to you to happen to others -think about how to do that. However, if you want the offending person immediately fired or burned at stake, well, it is unlikely to happen, so be realistic. If you want the world to know how horrible A is, keep in mind that administrators cannot really share a lot of personnel-related information with others. Perhaps good old gossip will work better for you there. If you just want the administrator to know about some misbehavior, just in case there are other complaints like this – it is totally fine, as long as you are explicit about your intentions. If you just want to tell the other person you do not appreciate the way you are treated, it is better to confront them directly. Bullies and tyrants are rarely aware of their bad behavior. They always have a theory about why what they do is a good thing. Tell them first, before complaining to others.

2. Don’t start with your conclusions, start with facts. In other words, don’t say so-and-so is disrespectful or ageist. What did they say or do to you? We need specific words and actions. An administrator needs to know facts, not only your opinion. Of course, you can also say how you felt about it, and why. Your personal perceptions do matter, just start with facts. Also, if there is a written policy that the other person’s actions violate, name and cite them. It helps to process the complain better.

3. Don’t expect to be immediately believed. You can count on empathy and validation of your feelings. An administrator cannot be dismissive, or immediately distrustful. However, the accused must have an opportunity to present their point of view, and until that moment the administrator must refrain from making her or his mind. This is just the basic due process, without which any action is not defensible in court. I know it does not feel good when someone is checking your story. The very fact checking feels a tad disrespectful. However, think about it in terms beyond your own case. After all, when someone complains about you, you would want that story verified, and you would welcome an opportunity to defend yourself, right?

4. Anonymous complaints are very hard to do anything about. Unless they are about something very serious like sexual harassment or threats of violence, they are likely to be forwarded to the person you are complaining about and that’s about it. Eve if they keep coming, there is always a suspicion that it is the same person waging a campaign. Only rarely anonymous complaints are so specific that they are verifiable. For example, “so and so said this in class.” But even that is hard to check – no administrator wants to go to the entire class of students, and ask – did your professor say this horrible thing? We ask the professor and unless she or he fesses up, it is hard to pinpoint. If you want to be serious about your complaint, sign it.

5. Student complainers often want their name to be kept confidential, usually out of fear of retaliation. Those are very hard to deal with. To confront the accused, an administrator must provide examples, details, facts. Providing those details will identify the complainer. I cannot go to a faculty member and say, “Hey, listen, there is a student concern aboutcontent of your email, but I cannot tell you which one, and what kind of a concern.” Any institution is obligated to prevent retaliation, so don’t be so afraid about revealing your name. If you are still afraid, just keep in mind that your complaint will be very difficult to do anything about. It will not be as powerful as an open one. Retaliation is not as easy as you might think, and putting your name forward automatically places you under increased protection.

6. While you can complain on behalf of other people, to raise an issue, it is always better if the victim of alleged mistreatment complains on their own behalf. Don’t be a passive bystander, talk to the victim, offer your help. Your administrator or whoever pick us the case, will have to check with the direct victim anyway, to verify the facts, and to see of the person want to raise a complaint.

A disclaimer: this has nothing to do with Chancellor’s resignation. We were just working on the College’s grievance policy since Fall semester.

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