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Complaints by any other name… are a step in the right direction

Ethics expert and director of the Ethics Conversation, Jane Arnott weighs in on New Zealand’s uneasy relationship with speaking up.

New Zealand doesn’t appear to have the appetite for a complaints culture. Neither do I.

Complaining sits right up there with whining on the left and whinging on the right. Being a good complainer or writing an excellent complaint will probably never lead to becoming a keynote speaker and is unlikely to endear anyone to friends or colleagues.

But the curious thing is that many complaints have, at their heart, a decision to speak up – to report when something is not right – whether it is an experience, an observation, or the handling of a business process, from lengthy contracts to commercial transactions.

However, the positive action of reporting or speaking up is subsumed by terminology – and the only appetite stimulated by complaints is one of indigestion.

Complaints have a ring of negativity about them. In contrast, speaking up or reporting sound altogether different. They affirm a serious decision – which is exactly what they should do.

Take Report it Now, New Zealand’s leading independent external reporting line for wrongdoing and misconduct. The emphasis on reporting as a positive action has been well-researched and stands up to scrutiny. The company leverages its brand by aligning it with ethical purpose and professionalism. They recognise that the positive connotations of reporting or speaking up are driven, most often, by a strong sense of ethics and values.

When our moral compass is offended we are more likely to report.

And it’s reporting or speaking up that we want to do. Not complain.

So when the NZ Police provide a means for feedback and state it must be either a complaint or a compliment it’s just possible that determination may sink with inertia. Similarly, when Sport New Zealand, a central government agency, provides for complaints and mediation via a ‘dispute resolution service’ the going gets tough from the outset. Everything sounds – and probably is – too much like hard work.

In New Zealand, numerous sporting codes from gymnastics to cycling have been exposed for bad behaviour, toxic culture and sheer ineptitude when complaints have been raised.

Unbelievably, despite critical reviews, the language of complaint is maintained. But the ethics and values that many of these athletes have championed such as integrity, transparency and fairness are worthy of far more respect than that associated with a mindset that complains.

To be clear, those who fight to raise the bar make a contribution to meaningful change through clear and accurate reporting or speaking up.

And so, when the FMA deliver another keynote speech at any future IFSO Conference on Fair Conduct it is hoped that the language of complaints will change.

While the reference to complaints as moments of truth is well put it is undermined by the insight that Kiwis are not big on complaining to businesses.

According to FMA research, New Zealanders are far more likely to tell friends and family about poor experiences than they are to formally complain to the organisation that has frustrated or disappointed them in some way. Good customer outcomes, the focus of the new conduct regime for the insurance industry, is a quantum leap into creating cultures of trust and reinforcing this through a willingness to listen when people, decide to report.

To build systems and controls that support good customer outcomes is to understand that ethical culture is the fire door between the smoking gun or the perfumed candle. And once this is understood, so too the emphasis must swing to switching from the dungeon of complaints to the well-lit and airy space that gives effective rise to authoritative and helpful reports.

If we look across the business landscape it is not possible to identify any code of ethics or conduct that asserts the benefit of developing a complaints culture. It is equally unlikely to find ethical leadership proponents associating complaining with enabling or facilitating customer relationships.

Further, we can only imagine what it might be like to hear a speech encouraging people to complain, with the same level of gravitas reserved for actions that change the course of history.

And so, instead of falling short with terms that fail us, let’s explore the openings that support and affirm human behaviour that seeks to do good. And that behaviour starts with speaking up, raising concerns, identifying poor or unreasonable decisions even alleging fraud, conflicts of interest or corruption before, ultimately reporting it… now.

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