How Associations Can Process Complaints with Transparency

complaint files April 30, 2024 By: Richard E. Shermanski

Processing complaints against members can be a serious issue for associations. Though organizations process complaints against members differently based on available resources and capabilities, handling these ethical concerns with transparency is crucial to maintain trust and accountability. Here’s a look at how transparency can help associations approach this process.

Associations, as industry or professional representatives, are trusted to uphold ethical standards. When the public is aware of the processes for addressing misconduct, it reinforces the association’s commitment to ethics, ensuring prompt and fair resolution of violations.

Typically, the complaint process is open to individuals who are members or stakeholders within the association. Association members are usually granted the right to voice their concerns or grievances. This may extend to board members, employees, or any individual directly affected by the association’s activities.

Transparency not only enhances the association’s credibility but also safeguards the trust of clients, customers, and the public, laying a crucial foundation for accountability and reputation. This fosters a culture of responsibility and confidence within the association, demonstrating a commitment to high standards.

Here’s a look at how all associations, no matter their size or available resources, can handle and adjudicate complaints against members, emphasizing its importance for both the profession and the public.

Investigation Process for Large Organizations

Many certification organizations conduct investigations. These investigations often involve the formation of an investigative panel tasked with conducting comprehensive interviews with witnesses, both the complainant and respondent, as well as consulting with subject matter experts. These panels collect and analyze pertinent information, ensuring a well-rounded understanding of the issues at hand. Following the investigation, a detailed report is then submitted by the investigative panel to the Board of Ethics (BOE) for review.

The BOE thoroughly reviews the report and then makes a well-informed decision. This clear distinction between the investigative panel and the BOE not only promotes objectivity but also ensures that decisions are made based on a comprehensive understanding of all the relevant facts.

By maintaining a clear separation between the investigative body and the decision-making body, certification organizations prioritize the integrity and credibility of their processes. This division helps prevent any potential biases that could influence the decision-making process. Additionally, it safeguards the transparency and fairness of the certification procedures, bolstering stakeholders’ confidence in the organization’s commitment to upholding ethical standards and maintaining a just and equitable environment for all parties involved.

Challenges and Opportunities for Small Associations

Medium-sized organizations are often unable to conduct formal investigations due to cost, limitations in manpower, and potential risks associated with delving into complex ethical matters. Instead, these organizations may opt to require those filing a complaint to provide any and all evidence that supports their belief that an ethical violation occurred.

By avoiding formal investigations, these organizations can minimize the financial burden and allocate resources more efficiently toward other essential operations. Moreover, avoiding extensive investigative processes can reduce the organization’s exposure to potential legal and reputational risks that might arise during an investigation.

Even without formal investigations, the boards of small associations are still dedicated to informed decision-making. They rely on materials submitted by concerned parties for their decisions, emphasizing transparency and accountability. This approach ensures both the respondent and complainant can present their cases based on available evidence.

While they may not compel evidence through subpoena powers, certification boards may still seek additional documentation or evidence from the involved parties through their designated ethics or compliance office staff. This practice ensures that the board’s decision-making process remains fair and comprehensive, allowing for the inclusion of relevant information that could strengthen either party’s arguments.

Smaller associations, with comparatively fewer resources, may opt for a simple review process. This review is typically conducted by either the board or a designated staff member, who assesses the information provided by the concerned parties.

In such cases, the emphasis is placed on a streamlined and efficient review process, given the limited capacity for conducting in-depth investigations. While this approach may lack the comprehensive nature of formal investigations, it allows small associations to address ethical matters within their means and make informed decisions based on the available evidence.

Utilization of Investigations

Even though an association may have consciously chosen not to conduct investigations, it may retain the option to do so if necessary. For example, an Association is faced with a situation regarding the actions of a member that effects the public and leadership believes the matter needs an in-depth review. The association may then opt to create a temporary investigative panel to review the matter. The panel may then present their findings to their Ethics/Compliance Board to determine what action should be taken. This flexibility allows the organization to adapt to evolving circumstances and handle complex ethical matters that may require a more thorough and detailed investigation.

This discretionary power underscores the organization’s commitment to upholding ethical standards and ensuring the integrity of the certification process, even if investigations are not the norm in their day-to-day operations.

The exploration of complaint handling procedures reveals distinct approaches based on association size. The flexibility for associations to conduct investigations, when necessary, underscores their commitment to ethical standards. Despite potential constraints, the acceptance and review of complaints play a crucial role in fostering transparency, accountability, and maintaining public trust in their dedication to ethical standards.

Richard E. Shermanski

Richard E. Shermanski, Esq., is associate director, ethics adjudication, at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.