The basic requirements
The relevant Model Complaints Handling Procedures (MCHPs) published by the SPSO across each sector require organisations to have in place a policy to deal with managing engagement.
The MCHPs do not prescribe a particular policy or approach. As a minimum, we would recommend that organisations should be able to demonstrate:
- that a policy is in place and is available to staff;
- there is a procedure in place for logging incidents and communicating decisions to customers which fall under that policy;
- customers are notified of a right of appeal;
- there is regular management review of the use of the policy; and
- it can be demonstrated that, when required, reasonable adjustments are being made. [see the section on accessibility and reasonable adjustments below]
It is for each organisation, based on their own experience and the needs of their customers and staff, to define what engagement requires to be managed. Situations that are deemed to be unacceptable may differ. The SPSO’s policy and the definitions in this guide may be a useful starting point and could be adopted. However, organisations will need to consider whether that is appropriate for them and also what that would mean in practice in their own particular circumstances.
Recording and monitoring
It is vital that any decisions to manage engagement are based on accurate, reliable and appropriate information. Maintaining meticulous record-keeping is essential, therefore, in the event that any decisions are challenged or further information is requested.
Organisations should ensure staff are aware of organisational requirements and best practices regarding the recording of telephone discussions which are abusive, offensive, obscene or threatening. Staff must always record these calls in writing, documenting the discussion as far as it is possible in the exact words used by the caller. Staff should be made aware that, without a detailed record, it may not be possible to take effective action to manage the situation. The record of the engagement should always be factual and unemotional. Staff and organisations should be aware that this information may be released. Policies should be in place to ensure that there is clarity about how and where these records are kept.
Moving towards best practice
The experience and needs of each organisation will vary but we would recommend that organisations consider the following:
- Providing support and training for individual staff who may face difficult situations whether covered by the engagement policy or not (for example, frontline staff and staff in customer-facing roles).
- Demonstrating clear ownership of the policy at a senior level, so that staff feel confident and empowered in using the policy. This could be demonstrated by regular communication to staff of how the policy has been used appropriately (for example through anonymised case studies).
- Providing clear information, not only to staff, but to the public to allow them to understand what standards of engagement are expected and also allowing them to raise any concerns, particularly around any needs they may have for reasonable adjustments. An example of how SPSO does this is available here.
- Proactively considering the impact of technology such as social media and whether the policy needs to reflect this.
All members of the community have the right to equal access to the complaints handling procedure. It is important, therefore, to be clear that any engagement policy does not interfere with the need to ensure that any service provided is accessible to all on an equal basis. Organisations will need to carefully think this through, both in developing their engagement policy and in applying it in individual situations. In each situation, you will have to consider whether you need to make reasonable adjustments to your service to allow the person to make a complaint. This may mean that you respond differently to individuals who have genuine access needs. We have produced guidance on complainants with vulnerabilities which may be helpful.
Organisations are often concerned about how to approach behaviour which they think may be occurring as a result of a mental health problem. Staff who are not clinically qualified should never attempt to make a diagnosis of a mental health problem or to make assumptions about what the impact of a particular condition may be on an individual. It is also not appropriate to consider situations related to underlying mental health as a category to be explicitly dealt with in a general engagement policy. Each case will be different and the organisation has a responsibility to consider specific accessibility needs in relation to each individual.