How to respond to a complaint about YOU:

I don’t think anyone, not even bullies, would say “I’m a bully”.

It’s not an identity that most people wear or even consider a part of their whole persona.  And yet, many of us are accused of bullying or other unacceptable behaviours within a workplace; is bad behaviour endemic? Or are we not sure how to behave at times?

When you ‘google’ “How to make a complaint” – I lost count of how many helpful sites there are or the number of organisations willing to help you ‘win your case’; but when you ask Dr Google about “How do I respond to a complaint?” – I found only one partially useful piece, telling you to check with colleagues and friends if the accusation is correct.

So, here I am, offering you some tips on how to respond to a complaint. I have over 20 years of experience mediating and coaching workplace conflict resolution and many common patterns appear when we are required to respond to an accusation of unacceptable behaviour.

Have you ever been on the receiving of a complaint? Hurts doesn’t it?

It is that moment when the wind is knocked out of you, and you often have to sit down, stunned.

“I am not what they say here, they don’t know the whole story”

It is at this point that we launch into defending ourselves, drawing on our farthest memories and closest friends to refute the allegations, and prove the other person wrong.  Make them retract such an awful and inaccurate accusation. It’s not fair.

Unfortunately, inadvertently, when we race headlong into defending ourselves, we may be behaving in exactly the manner we have been accused of.  Most defensive responses do not consider the impact of the words on the reader, and ultimately present as uncompassionate, unapologetic and schoolyard mean.

If you were to pause, consider the ‘impression’ you would like to create in your response, what would that be?  What matters about how you are perceived when you respond to a complaint about you?

Many people that I work with start with the need for the process and what is said to be FAIR, then they often consider other values such as: understanding, honest, compassionate, respectful and integrity.

What are your core values?  How you want to be as a human?  What matters to you?   You can do a quick values activity here.

Ultimately, it is from these values that you craft your response to a complaint.  From the ‘get-go’ you want the reader to know you are genuine and aligned with what matters, and responding rather than defending.

How to respond to a complaint about YOU:

Step 1:  Manage your reaction:

It’s a real sucker punch when you are informed that someone believes you are a bully or harassing them.  Rarely is the accusation aligned with our own ‘self-story’ and our fight and flight response is in full swing before we have finished reading the complaint.  It is OK to feel angry, hurt, disappointed, revengeful, sad; what can be NOT OK is when you behave these feelings.

Step 2: Write your reaction:

There is real stress relieving value to be able to put down on paper exactly what you would like to say to the complainant … if you weren’t caring.  DO NOT SEND THIS!!!  Reactivity is relieved with the opportunity to vent. Rarely is a vented statement the authentic message, it is a means to dispel the anger and shock of hearing something so unexpected.   We can now refine this reaction to more accurately reflect you; your best you.

Step 3: Who do you want to be?

This is where you consider the ‘Story’ you want the reader to have about you after they read your response to the complaint.  Know your values and how you live them.

Step 4: Review your reaction in step 2:

Does it read as an objective response to the complaint?  Is it clearly explaining your perspective? What information may be missing?  Is the objective ‘data’ of the circumstance included?  The purpose of the review step is to ensure what you have written is a clear description of your perspective; aligned with your values and representing who you want to be.

Step 5: Review your response from Step 4:

And include acknowledgement (not agreement) of the impact this situation has had on the other person.  It takes courage and vulnerability to make a formal complaint, these are qualities most workplaces strive for, so, in acknowledging the impact you are accepting that another person may have a different perspective to you.  In doing this you often move the complaint away from being strictly adversarial.

Step 6: Apologise, if appropriate:

An apology is about being accountable for your own behaviour and impact on others, it is not an agreement of ‘fault’ or ‘guilt’.  Make your apology genuine, a poor or satirical apology directly reflects on you and your values.

Step 7:  Take Care of You:

A complaint is not reflective of your whole life, nor is it likely to follow you forever; if you manage it fairly and productively.  I recommend you include in your self-care the process of seeking the feedback of trusted friends and colleagues; do they see you behaving in ways that may legitimise the complaint?  Knowing this is the opportunity to be different, we all can change, we all can learn, no matter our age or station in life.