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Insight

Avoiding a crisis: the importance of an open culture and handling complaints well

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United Kingdom

There have been many independent investigations published this year that have found poor cultures in organisations, characterised by a 'culture of fear' and a failure to adequately deal with concerns when they were raised.

This is across a number of sectors in both private and public spheres, including health, education, sport and government. Organisations large and small have been affected by allegations and found themselves subject to independent investigations as a result. Examples include:

  • The Ockenden Report (30 March 2022) into maternity services at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust where it was highlighted that "Many staff members told the review team of the fear of speaking out within maternity services."
  • The report into Holland Park School (4 May 2022) where it was found there was "a culture of fear, favouritism and inequality";
  • The Sue Gray Report (25 May 2022) in which she found that "…some staff had witnessed or been subjected to behaviours at work which they had felt concerned about but at times felt unable to raise properly";
  • The report into UCL's Bartlett School of Architecture (9 June 2022) where it was found that there was "…a culture of fear, favouritism, and fear of speaking up by staff and students..."

The need and trend for independent investigations is also set to continue. Just last week, another was launched in respect of a "toxic workplace culture" at Chelsea Football Club following a report published by the New York Times.

These investigative reports have all been instigated following a public scandal of some description and are a real opportunity for an organisation to look at how it could do better and effect real cultural change, through identifying the problems, and being accountable for and transparent about them.

However they are also incredibly damaging to organisations. They can erode trust, which can be difficult to restore.

Two broad issues repeat themselves in each report: lack of trust in complaints processes and fear of repercussions if complaints are raised. These factors contribute to closed cultures where unacceptable behaviour is repeatedly condoned, which in turn is damaging to anyone working or engaging with the organisation. So what can we learn from these reports?

  1. How complaints are handled is key to the culture of an organisation – if they are not seen to be taken seriously or adequately dealt with then the behaviour complained about becomes normalised.
  2. Complaints policies must be clear, easy to understand and transparent.
  3. Complaints policies must be signposted and disseminated in a way that creates standards of expected behaviour within the group of individuals it applies to.
  4. Complaints must be dealt with thoroughly and promptly and communication with those affected must be transparent and consistent.
  5. Outcomes in response to complaints must be fair, proportionate and consistent.
Read more about our Crisis Management work.

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