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How we define, and respond to, unacceptable actions and behaviour
Most people who contact us with a complaint do so in an entirely appropriate way. In a few cases, however, we consider their actions or behaviour to be unacceptable. The following paragraphs set out how we define unacceptable actions and behaviour and describe our policy for dealing with anyone who behaves in a way that we consider inappropriate.
- To make it clear to all complainants, both at initial contact and throughout their dealings with our office, what SPPA can and cannot do in relation to their complaint. In doing so, we aim to be open and not to raise hopes or expectations that we cannot meet.
- To deal fairly, honestly, consistently and appropriately with all complainants, including those whose actions we consider unacceptable. We believe that all complainants have the right to be heard, understood and respected. We also consider that SPPA staff have the same rights.
- To provide a service that is accessible to all complainants. However, we retain the right, where we consider complainant actions to be unacceptable, to restrict or change access to our service.
- To ensure that other complainants and SPPA staff do not suffer any disadvantage from complainants who act in an unacceptable manner.
Defining unacceptable actions
There may have been upsetting or distressing circumstances leading up to a complaint, which can make people act out of character. We do not view behaviour as unacceptable just because a claimant is forceful or determined. In fact, we accept that being persistent can be a positive advantage when pursuing a complaint.
However, the actions of complainants who are angry, demanding or persistent may result in unreasonable demands on our office or unacceptable behaviour towards SPPA staff. It is these actions that we consider unacceptable, and that we aim to manage under this policy. We group them under three broad headings.
Aggressive or abusive behaviour
Violence is not restricted to acts of aggression that may result in physical harm. It also includes behaviour or language (whether oral or written) that may cause staff to feel afraid, threatened or abused.
We expect our staff to be treated courteously and with respect. Violence or abuse towards staff is unacceptable. SPPA staff understand the difference between aggression and anger. The anger felt by many complainants stems from the subject matter of their complaint. However, it is not acceptable when this escalates into aggression directed at SPPA staff.
Threats, physical violence, personal verbal abuse, derogatory remarks and rudeness. We also consider that inflammatory statements and unsubstantiated allegations can be abusive behaviour.
Complainants may make what we consider to be unreasonable demands on our office through the amount of information they seek, the nature and scale of service they expect, or the number of approaches they make. What amounts to unreasonable demands will always depend on the circumstances surrounding the behaviour and the seriousness of the issues raised by the complainant.
We consider demands to be unacceptable and unreasonable if they start to substantially affect the work of the office, such as taking up an excessive amount of staff time to the disadvantage of other complainants or functions.
Demanding responses within an unreasonable time-scale, insisting on seeing or speaking to a particular member of staff, continual phone calls or letters, repeatedly changing the substance of the complaint or raising unrelated concerns.
We recognise that some complainants will not or cannot accept that SPPA is unable to assist them further, or provide a level of service other than that provided already.
Complainants may persist in disagreeing with the action or decision taken in relation to their complaint or contact the office persistently about the same issues.
We consider the actions of persistent complainants to be unacceptable when they take up what SPPA regards as being a disproportionate amount of time and resources.
Persistent refusal to accept a decision made in relation to a complaint, persistent refusal to accept explanations relating to what this office can or cannot do, continuing to pursue a complaint without presenting any new information. The way in which these complainants approach our office may be entirely reasonable, but it is their persistent behaviour in continuing to do so that is not.
Managing unacceptable actions
How we aim to manage these actions depends on their nature and extent. If they adversely affect our ability to do our work and provide a service to others, we may need to restrict the complainant’s contact with our office. We always aim to do this in a way that allows a complaint to progress to completion through our complaints process. We may restrict contact in person, by telephone, fax, letter or electronically, or any combination of these. We try to maintain at least one form of contact.
In extreme situations, we tell the complainant in writing that their name is on a ‘no personal contact’ list. This means that they must restrict contact with our office to either written communication or through a third party.
The threat or use of physical violence, verbal abuse or harassment towards SPPA staff is likely to result in the ending of all direct contact with the complainant. Incidents may be reported to the police. This will always be the case if physical violence is used or threatened.
We do not deal with correspondence (letter, fax or electronic) that is abusive to staff or contains allegations that lack substantive evidence. When this happens we tell the complainant that we consider their language offensive, unnecessary and unhelpful. We ask them to stop using such language and state that we will not respond to their correspondence if they do not stop. We may require future contact to be through a third party.
SPPA staff will end telephone calls if the caller is considered aggressive, abusive or offensive. The staff member taking the call has the right to make this decision, tell the caller that the behaviour is unacceptable and end the call if the behaviour does not stop.
Where a complainant repeatedly phones, visits the office, sends irrelevant documents or raises the same issues, we may decide to:
- only take telephone calls from the complainant at set times on set days, or put an arrangement in place for only one member of staff to deal with calls or correspondence from the complainant in the future
- require the complainant to make an appointment to speak to a named member of staff, or to contact the office in writing only
- return the documents to the complainant or, in extreme cases, advise the complainant that further irrelevant documents will be destroyed.
- take other action that we consider appropriate. We will, however, always tell the complainant what action we are taking and why.
Where a complainant continues to correspond on a wide range of issues, and this action is considered excessive, the complainant is told that only a certain number of issues will be considered in a given period, and asked to focus their requests accordingly.
A complainant’s action may be considered unreasonably persistent if all internal review mechanisms have been exhausted and the complainant continues to dispute SPPA's decision relating to their complaint. The complainant is told that no future phone calls will be accepted or interviews granted concerning this complaint. Any future contact by the complainant on this issue must be in writing. Future correspondence is read and filed, but only acknowledged or responded to if the complainant provides significant new information relating to the complaint.
Deciding to restrict complainant contact
If SPPA staff directly experience aggressive or abusive behaviour from a complainant, they have the authority to deal immediately with that behaviour in a manner they consider appropriate to the situation and in line with this policy.
With the exception of such immediate decisions taken at the time of an incident, decisions to restrict contact with SPPA are only taken after careful consideration of the situation by a more senior member of staff. Wherever possible, we give a complainant the opportunity to modify their behaviour or action before a decision is taken. Complainants are told in writing why a decision has been made to restrict future contact, the restricted contact arrangements and, if relevant, the length of time that these restrictions will be in place.
Appealing a decision to restrict contact
A complainant can appeal a decision to restrict contact. A senior member of staff who was not involved in the original decision considers the appeal. They advise the complainant in writing either that the restricted contact arrangements still apply or that a different course of action has been agreed.
Recording and reviewing a decision to restrict contact
We record all incidents of unacceptable actions by complainants. Where it is decided to restrict complainant contact, an entry noting this is made in the relevant file and on appropriate computer records.
A decision to restrict complainant contact may be reconsidered if the complainant demonstrates a more acceptable approach.
Policy availability and review
Copies of this policy are available on request and free of charge from SPPA’s office. SPPA reviews this policy on a regular basis to make sure that its aims are being achieved.