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Is your sporting organisation ready for complaints?

An escalating risk for sporting organisations is how to react to complaints. The day you receive a complaint is not the time to make policy on the run, nor decisions. The financial, reputational and stakeholder risks are just too high.

At your next board meeting, ask yourselves, Are you prepared for a complaint?

Then consider what ‘prepared’ means.

It’s more than a template complaints policy sitting in the file server. That’s a good start, but it’s not prepared. 

The making of a complaint is the one factor your organisation can’t control, though you can control what you do next. Yet, it’s this step that is often poorly managed. Cricket Australia acted swiftly to sack captain Tim Paine and in hindsight, the question has been asked if the board followed a process or yielded to the media and stakeholder pressure. The stakes are high if a complaint is mismanaged either due to the absence of a policy guiding the organisation’s actions, or the board getting nervous and making up policy on the run – in effect disregarding a policy that was made for the very situation they are facing.  

In the sporting environment emotions often run higher than in business. Teams train in close circumstances forming tight bonds. Coaches are not just advisors, they are mentors, cajolers, and confidants. Stakeholders care about more than financial returns. When relationships sour and a complaint ensues, boards must be on their game. It’s very hard to recover from a poor start. Is this an area of governance to be neglected? 

Perhaps some boards tell themselves that the rainy day will never come. This is wishful thinking. Complaints within sport are on the rise.  Inevitably, if you run a sporting organisation, you will be required to manage a complaint. Complaints about non-selection, coach favouritism or teammate exclusion, will escalate in the lead up to the 2032 Olympics, as coveted positions for a home competition become even more sought after.

For every high-profile complaint (think Swimming Australia and Football Australia) there are dozens of complaints that go unreported by the media. They are no less important to the complainant and how they are managed will impact both the organisation and those involved.  Indeed, how they are managed may lead to unwanted publicity for all involved.  

We have two key elements for boards to keep in mind as they consider whether they are fit enough to manage a complaint if one were received today.  

The Policy

A fit for purpose Complaints Policy sets up your framework. Sports Integrity Australia has issued a template for Complaints, Disputes and Discipline but it specifically excludes complaints relating to eligibility and selection, competition-related rules, personal grievances, code of conduct or governance matters.  

The subject of recent complaints to Cricket Australia, Swimming Australia and Football Australia all related to such interpersonal matters.  

Some of the factors to consider when drafting the policy include:

  • what constitutes a complaint;
  • what process will be adopted when one is received;
  • notification to parties;
  • internal investigation procedure; 
  • reference to external dispute resolution; and
  • appeals. 

All of these factors require careful consideration before the policy is drafted. Time spent getting this right beforehand will pay off once the real action starts. You get one chance to start complaint management properly. 

The Practice 

Once the policy has been adopted by the board, the hard work begins. Following the policy ensures the board and CEO are not wrong-footed as they respond.  The initial response is critical in shaping the outcome of the complaint and the board needs to have faith that they determined the best policy when they had the luxury of time. Once the blow torch is upon them, the focus must be people. That is, following a policy that is understood by board members and management, with an eye on the people involved in the process.  

Some tips for practice are:

  • determining and practising role clarity for the various actions required in the first 24 hours and following; 
  • functional coordination to ensure consistency within the organisation and to avoid any mixed messaging about the complaint; and 
  • setting clear lines of external communication.  

Simulations are essential to test the organisation’s preparedness. It is okay not to feed into the 24/7 media cycle and to follow process before any substantive statements are made. This is where policy trumps media spin every time. Don’t try to second guess the way the wind of popular opinion is blowing. Practice following the policy, review performance, adjust and practice again. 

Champion athletes succeed because they train for all contingencies and so spend less time improvising than their fellow competitors. Sporting originations must adopt a similar approach to complaints. They must set the strategy and then train.

If you’re looking for expert assistance in developing or refining your organisation’s complaints policy, contact Effective Governance

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