Systemic or personal – and who are the parties to this dispute?

IMG_0019 A complaint is not necessarily an attack. Defence may not be the right response

Institutions often respond to the raising of a concern  or the making of a complaint or the emergence of a dispute as though it was a personal attack on senior management. The tendency is to ‘close ranks’ and defend any senior individual named as though he or she ‘is’ the institution. This often leads to an inappropriately adversarial and defensive response.

The right response  is to treat such instances as opportunities to learn from mistakes or prompters to explain better why a particular ground of complaint may not be justified.

When is it personal and when is it ‘systemic’?

If systemic concerns  about alleged mismanagement or maladministration or simply muddle are raised in connection with a complaint or grievance, those should be separated at the outset from the ‘personal’ elements of the dispute.

There is helpful discussion of the underlying principles on the QAA website:

Grievance procedures for staff often make it clear that a grievance is essentially a ‘workplace dispute’. That is, it is raised by one member of staff against another and the parties to a grievance are the two employees concerned.

It can be important to distinguish the elements of a grievance which are genuinely interpersonal and have to do with ‘working relationships’ from those which are really complaints about the conduct of a senior employee in an official capacity.  If a head of department has acted as an officer of the institution rather than as a fellow-employee, then the grievance may really involve  the raising of a concern.

A student makes a complaint. The same questions arise.  Is the complaint about the personal conduct of a member of staff.  Is it, for example, a complaint about harassment or the abuse of power, as when a lecturer promises a higher mark in return for sexual favours?  Or is it a complaint about the lecturer’s failure to deliver lectures on behalf of the institution ( ‘he is always late’; ‘he often cancels a lecture’).

Again, the institution which receives a complaint should determine what the complaint is really about and who should be regarded as a party.

When should the institution provide legal advice?

A senior member of staff who is a party to a dispute should not automatically be identified with the ‘institution’. Remember that if a grievance is raised against a head of department over personal conduct, the parties are the two employees not the employee with a grievance and the ‘institution’.

Senior employees should not be given the support of the institution’s legal services team or legal advice at the institution’s expense unless they ‘are’ the institution for the purposes of the dispute because it is not fair.

The NUS believes that:

if an institution believes a case is complex enough to seek legal advice they should make the same support available to the student to ensure an “equality of arms’.  The institution should also ensure regular communication with the student throughout the process and the student should have access to all the evidence used by the institution.

Student Charter on Institutional Complaints and Appeals Procedures, March 2010,

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