Vic Ombudsman's guide: how to handle complaints and aggressive customers

By Stephen Easton

May 24, 2018

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Lots of citizens find dealing with government agencies challenging or feel that service delivery falls short of their expectations. Sometimes the feeling is mutual for the staff serving them.

Governments feel the need to stick up for their staff from time to time, usually by expressing a tough, zero-tolerance policy towards abusive behaviour, but often tempered with some commitment to treating people fairly and courteously.

On the other hand, consumer rights or advocacy groups often point the finger at an uncaring bureaucracy, typically while acknowledging that it’s not the frontline staff who make the rules or issue determinations in more complex situations.

Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass often hears both sides of the story, and has made a fresh effort to intervene with a new best-practice guide that would sit well on the bookshelf in any service delivery agency, anywhere.

“Not only do we deal with challenging behaviour ourselves on a daily basis, we are constantly asked for advice from government departments, agencies, and local councils on what to do with overly persistent or abusive people,”  she writes, introducing the new handbook on dealing with what is politely termed “challenging behaviour” from citizens.

“We hear about people who bombard agencies with complaints, refuse to listen to advice, swear at or threaten the agency’s staff, or threaten to harm themselves if they don’t get the outcome they seek.

“We also hear from people who complain that an agency won’t deal with them, when they think they have a justified complaint.”

The report considers the full spectrum of difficult customers from the demanding to the dangerous, and what can be done in an environment where it is much harder to simply refuse service than it is for a business.

Some client frustration “could be de-escalated if the complaint handler showed a greater understanding of its causes” while other times, the ombudsman advises, aggressive behaviour can only be “contained” because it is totally unacceptable.

“We recognise this difficult balancing act,” says Glass. “The public sector exists to serve the public including those who may be demanding. But public sector resources are limited, and agencies need to protect the health and safety of their workforce.”

The fact that legislation must be followed is sometimes the source of the citizen’s frustration. When a situation escalates out of hand, the response must also stay within the rules. For Victoria, Glass notes the relevant laws are the state’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act, Equal Opportunity Act, and Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Cutting someone off is the last resort, she notes in the report, which goes over the ways to reduce the likelihood of getting to that stage, based in part on real examples of what has or hasn’t worked in the past. And if the person you try to ban from coming back is mentally ill or has a permanent disability underlying their unusual behaviour, the ban might be overturned anyway, as one Victorian council found out in 2013.

“I hope the guide helps to de-fuse, de-escalate and de-mystify the behaviours that public servants encounter daily, and that greater understanding leads to fewer complaints,” said Glass.

The tough stance taken against attacks on emergency service workers by the Victorian government highlights one particularly extreme and sadly quite common category of abuse against public sector employees. The criminal law crackdown is a response to a popular campaign in support of paramedics who believe past offenders have been sentenced too lightly after attacking their colleagues.

Still, quite a few of the state’s top lawyers disagree with the Andrews government resorting to mandatory sentencing for this crime; as always, there is the question of whether hardline punishment actually deters future crimes, or just provides the public with a satisfying sense of justice or even retribution.

Working inside the hospital can also be dangerous, or behind the counter at a government shopfront, just as it can be in all sorts of direct customer service jobs.

The risk is not as high for most frontline public sector workers as it is for paramedics, but they generally enjoy far weaker public support as well. In many cases, the “challenging behaviour” is also tied up with the citizen’s entitlement to the service, past experiences, or misunderstandings of rules that are quite often extremely complex.

Everyone is entitled to government services, even if they’re eccentric or not particularly nice. The new guide also notes that sometimes otherwise perfectly well-mannered people “communicate in unexpected ways because they are frustrated or distressed about their situation, or because of culture, disability or other personal circumstances”.

“On the other hand, we also expect organisations to protect the interests of the broader public and their staff. Public sector organisations need to use limited resources in the interests of all customers, not just the most demanding. They are also workplaces with obligations to protect the health and safety of their workers.”

The first page of the report carries a quote from Glass’s past predecessor Norman Geschke in his 1981 annual report suggesting thus it has always been:

“The complaints this Office receives are against “Bureaucracies”, organisations dependent on humans. Humans are unpredictable, have emotional ups and downs, good days and bad days … a capacity to react to various situations in not always predictable ways, an ability for remembering the matters supporting their cause and forgetting or dismissing the facts that do not.

“With humans on both sides of the counter, the chance of misunderstandings, inaccurate assessments and subjective judgments is ever present …”

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