Hot under collar? head Keep a cool head

January 6, 2006

Harriet Swain is given some expert advice on how to complain about problems at work. Key to getting the result you crave is keeping your composure even if you are fast approaching boiling point

New Year and a new, assertive you, no longer prepared to put up with being overworked and underpaid by a boss who ogles your bottom. So, er, if it's not too much trouble, could someone tell you how to go about complaining?

The most important thing is actually doing it, says Roger Kline, head of universities at lecturers' union Natfhe.

"What you shouldn't do is do nothing." He says if you have an accident or feel you are being harassed, you need to take advice early on or start keeping a record of what is happening to give yourself the best chance of having the problem resolved.

Gail Kinman, an occupational health psychologist at Luton University who studies stress among academics, warns: "Don't bottle it up and get angry.

It's going to come out somehow and might come out inappropriately."

Jane Thompson, policy officer at the Association of University Teachers, says people are often wary about getting their union involved too early because they fear escalating the problem and annoying people.

But she says by contacting the union you can register your complaint and may find out that others have complained about the same thing already. This might take it away from you personally and therefore take the pressure off you.

She also advises taking a record of everything that happens and making sure all responses are in writing.

"Don't let yourself be fobbed off," she says. "You have a right to have your complaint taken seriously."

On the other hand, you shouldn't immediately jump in and start threatening legal action.

Unless the problem is life-threatening, "going over the top can sometimes be as unproductive as doing nothing", Kline says.

Thompson says that if you can resolve things informally, you should. Speak to the person causing you the problem and try to get things resolved orally before you put anything in writing.

But keep on making notes in case that doesn't work. And be aware of legal time limits for complaining, she warns. Letting a situation drag on could put in jeopardy any later action you take, as well as allowing both sides to get entrenched in their positions.

Kinman says you should think logically about your situation, ideally at some distance from it, and avoid acting through some kind of emotional drive.

"Plan a course of action and follow it through," she says. First, you need to sort out what exactly the problem is.

If you think that your office is too crowded, try to work out whether that really is the issue or whether you cannot stand the people you're working with, advises Kline.

Next, you have to ensure that other people in the office agree that you have identified the problem correctly.

Kinman says you should beware "little cliques of moaning". These can be positive in giving you the feeling of social support and empathy "but they can also wind you up". They are no good unless they galvanise you into action.

For this you need to find out about what tools are available to help you.

You will need to identify your employment and legal rights - not necessarily the same things - and work out whether there are health and safety regulations that are being breached. Kline suggests approaching your union representative for advice.

Then you need to find out about procedures in your particular institution and to decide whether you want to tackle the problem individually or collectively.

Thompson says you should check to see if the other side is following procedures too - it is always helpful to be able to quote back at them the institution's own policies.

Kinman says that whatever action you should take will depend on the nature of the problem, the procedures of your institution and your relationship with your supervisor or line manager.

In most cases, they should be the first people you go to, but if they are part of the problem this could be difficult.

It will also depend on what you want to get out of it - something you should work out early on.

She says it is also worth thinking in a logical way about what might be the disadvantages of taking action.

When you do make your complaint you must choose your moment carefully, says Helen Scott, executive officer of the Universities Personnel Association.

"Doing it when all hell is breaking loose about something else is like a small child asking for cookies when you are trying to make tea and do a lot of other things," she warns.

She advises trying to see the situation from the other person's point of view to work out whether your complaint is reasonable and to anticipate their response. This will also help you to propose a solution yourself.

"People are always more likely to listen to complaints composed in a constructive way than those in a whingeing or aggressive tone," she says.

Having factual evidence to back up your complaint is helpful, particularly as your manager may have no idea that you have been treated unfairly.

Scott says you shouldn't always assume that your ogre boss has set out to make your life miserable.

Finally, if you complain and nothing is done, you must be prepared to pursue it until you are satisfied with the solution.

Further information:
The Health and Safety Executive:
Natfhe, the university and college lecturers' union:
Association of University Teachers:

Top tips

  • Identify the problem
  • Decide what you would like to be done about it
  • Find out which laws, policies or agreements you can use to support your case
  • Follow procedures and keep a note of events and what is said
  • Don't allow yourself to be fobbed off

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