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Chapter 10 Section H: How to effectively make a complaint

This section discusses how to make an effective complaint.

It first discusses the question of who to make a complaint to. That is, whether you should first complain to the organisation or body you are complaining about directly or go to a designated independent complaints body without having done so.

The second question is whether you should make a complaint in writing .

There is also a page with links to other documents about effective complaints and letter-writing .

10H.1: Who to complain to and should the complaint be in writing

When you decide you are going to make a complaint you have several decisions to make at the start of the process:

10H.1.1: Who to complain to

You can and should consider first making a complaint to the organisation or body that the complaint is about. If you are not comfortable doing this, you can complain to one of the established complaints bodies that exist.

However, some of the complaint bodies require that you to try to resolve the complaint directly with the organisation you are complaining about, before they are prepared to become involved. This will sometimes depend upon the seriousness and nature of your complaint (for example, if your complaint is about sexual harassment or bullying, you should not be expected to try to and resolve your complaint with the person who is or has sexually harassed or bullied you).

Most large organisations, both public and private, have complaints policies and sometimes designated complaints sections or complaints officers.

There are advantages in complaining to the organisation or body you are complaining about first:

  • If your concerns are urgent, your concerns are more likely to be resolved quickly.
  • Even if your concerns are not urgent, you might receive a quicker resolution to your complaint. For example, you might receive an apology and you might decide that that is a sufficient outcome for you.
  • Even if nothing else happens, you will probably have access to the other party’s version of events and gain more information about what happened. This can be used if you decide to take the complaint further to an external complaint handing body.
  • If you prefer to make your complaint verbally, they are less likely to insist on a written complaint than an external complaint body.

10H.1.2: Should you put your complaint in writing?

Many organisations and bodies like the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC), will only accept written complaints.

Even if an organisation does accept verbal complaints, it is still generally preferable to put your complaints, concerns or questions in writing for the following reasons:

  • It is much harder for the organisation you are complaining about to ignore a written complaint. If they do ignore the complaint, this may be evidence of unreasonable conduct that you can include in your complaint to an external complaint handing body, if you decide to take the matter further. Sometimes it is harder to prove that you made a verbal complaint which was ignored. As time passes, it can be more difficult to remember exactly what was said at the time of the complaint, and remain accurate.
  • Although the body accepting the verbal complaint might record what you say to them, you will not have any record, except your memory, of the details of your complaint. When you receive a response, it will be more difficult to check whether all of your complaints and all of your questions have been responded to.
  • If you make your complaint verbally, you are less likely to receive a comprehensive written response in reply. This means you will have less information to pass on to a formal complaints body if you decide to take your complaint further.
  • Putting a complaint in writing means you are less likely to overlook something when you are making your complaint.
  • Putting your complaint in writing makes it easier for someone dealing with your complaint to understand your concerns and what you want done about them. If you ask questions, and they are put in writing, then your questions are less likely to be misunderstood and you are more likely to receive answers that deal the substance of the question.

However, if you feel more comfortable talking to someone rather than writing it down, then you may still receive the answers or an explanation that satisfies you, an apology that you want or systemic change in the organisation to make sure the same mistake is not repeated simply from a telephone call or face to face meeting. In other words, a verbal complaint is far more likely to lead to a satisfactory outcome than the third option, which is doing nothing at all.

If you have difficulty in writing a written complaint, because of your English language skills, your literacy levels or just the stress of the situation, then an advocacy organisation might be able to help you.

10H.2: More complaint and letter writing tips

The NSW Ombudsman has a fact sheet on tips for effective complaints, click here to read it. 

The HCCC has an information sheet about effective health care complaints, click here to read it.

The Complaint Line has also guides to making a complaint, click here to read it.

The Complaint Line also has tips, click here for more information.

Updated January 30, 2015