Date posted: 15/05/2020 8 min read

How to respond to complaints and move on positively

It can be confronting and stressful to have a complaint made against you. Here is the best way to respond.

In Brief

  • Receiving a complaint against you is hard, but it can also be a useful learning experience.
  • If a complaint is made against you, you’ll receive a letter from the Professional Conduct teams at CA ANZ or NZICA.
  • Constructing a clear and logical written response to a complaint is a crucial part of the process.

By Michelle Stevenson

As a member of Chartered Accountants Australia & New Zealand (CA ANZ), having a complaint made against you might seem like the end of the world. But it can actually be a useful learning experience, and you may come out bigger and better at the other side.

Kate Dixon and Rebecca Stickney head the CA ANZ professional conduct teams in Australia and New Zealand respectively, and explain how members can respond to complaints in an effective and constructive way.

What happens when you receive a complaint?

If a complaint is made against you, you’ll receive a covering letter from the Professional Conduct teams at CA ANZ or NZICA (if you are a New Zealand member). The letter will outline:

  • how the complaint handling process works, including potential avenues for support
  • timelines for response
  • additional information or questions requested on behalf of the Professional Conduct Committee.

Attached to the letter will be a document outlining the complaint, as well as any other relevant documents provided by the complainant. The member is required to provide a written response by a particular deadline.

Getting support or advice before you respond

Receiving a complaint can be distressing and members approach it in different ways, says Stickney.

“Some members will respond themselves and not need support or advice. Other people may want to have some support or a sounding board before they submit their response or during the process. Examples of people who could provide support include other principals in the firm, a trusted colleague or mentor, or potentially a member of the CA Advisory Group,” she says.

“Some people may also want to consult their lawyers, particularly if the allegations are serious or it is a matter that could engage PI [professional indemnity] insurance, and they should certainly think about any PI implications.”

Depending on the complexity of the issues raised in the complaint, it is often a good idea to discuss your response with someone else (so long as you comply with your confidentiality obligations under the Rules and By-laws).

Members are encouraged to contact the Professional Conduct team should they have any questions or concerns about the complaint process.

Constructing a logical response to the complaint

Constructing a written response to the complaint is a crucial part of the process. But before putting pen to paper, you need to really think about the issue or issues that have been raised – without getting emotional.

“It’s often stressful and it can be a bit confronting to have someone complain about you, but people who respond well are often able to cut through the emotion and think about the big picture,” says Stickney. “The disciplinary bodies are interested in the facts, so try to play the ball and not the man.”

Constructing a response in a clear and logical way will go a long way in helping the Professional Conduct Committee understand your side of the story. And there are lots of ways you can do this.

For example, you could address each issue individually, or perhaps structure the response in a chronological format. You should also provide any documents that help explain or justify your position.

Members should also consider the tone of their response and the fact that the audience is not only the complainant but also the disciplinary bodies that will consider the member’s professionalism and compliance with the Code of Ethics.

“Adopting an inappropriate tone in communications with CA ANZ staff and the disciplinary bodies can exacerbate the complaint,” notes Dixon.

It’s also critical to adhere to deadlines. If you require more time to gather the information you need, be sure to contact the case manager or investigator as soon as possible. Advise in writing what you need and why, so that an extension can be arranged.

Timing is everything

Dixon recalls a case several years ago where a member had some issues with his trust account. He understood these issues needed to be remedied, but he was far too slow in remedying them. As a result, the case was referred by the Professional Conduct Committee to the Disciplinary Tribunal, with the latter suspending his membership.

The member appealed the decision and finally managed to resolve the issues – just before the Appeals Tribunal hearing. While the Appeals Tribunal did overturn his suspension, the member faced other significant costs that could have been avoided if he had been more timely.

“[The case] would have been many months – maybe six to nine months – shorter, and significantly cheaper. In the end, the cost that he was required to pay by the Appeals Tribunal was about $24,000,” says Dixon.

“And if the issues had been resolved earlier, the member may have avoided being referred to the Disciplinary Tribunal at all, and therefore without the published decision on the website. That’s a good example of what can happen when a complaint is not dealt with on a timely and appropriate basis.”

Kate DixonPicture: Kate Dixon, Australian conduct and discipline manager, CA ANZ.

“If the issues had been resolved earlier, the member may have avoided being referred to the Disciplinary Tribunal at all.”
Kate Dixon, Australian conduct and discipline manager, CA ANZ

A willingness to improve is key

Responding to a complaint in a positive and proactive fashion is the first step. The second step involves taking the time to investigate why the complaint was made in the first place. In other words, identifying any areas where you can improve your practice – and avoid any additional complaints in the future.

“We often find that a member’s response to a complaint is, ‘Oh, well, someone in my practice did X. I wasn’t aware of it and this is what caused the problem’,” says Dixon.

“A member who is keen to improve might say, ‘How did my team member do this? Was that procedure in my practice appropriate? Should they have authority to do that? Should there be more supervision? Should there be more training? How can I fix it so it won’t happen again?’”

For some members, having a complaint made against them can help improve their practice, while for others it can affect their confidence, says Stickney.

“Through the complaints process, the member may learn that actually they need a bit of mentoring, or perhaps they need to get some help with their business or improving their policies and procedures, or undertake some further training,” she says.

“Taking time to reflect on the complaint can really help members move on from it. CA ANZ has a range of ways we can help and is very open to talking to members about ‘Where to from here?’ This might include helping a member connect with a mentor, discussing CA ANZ’s education and learning offerings that could help a member upskill, and connecting the member with professional support or networks of members.”

Read more:

The reasons why CAs are investigated

CA ANZ receives up to 400 complaints a year about its members, so what is bringing good CAs unstuck?

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