What do you do if you are the subject of a complaint? While potentially shocking and embarrassing, not to mention stressful, it needs to be taken seriously for your benefit and that of the profession.

In 2009, I took a call that left me in absolute disbelief. Engineering New Zealand (then IPENZ) had received a complaint about me. I’d attended a series of public forums and the complaint was about a theory I presented at one of them.

My first reaction was anger. I was in denial about the need to respond. It was embarrassing and I wanted to keep it to myself, but after a few days, it sank in that the complaint was real. I needed to deal with it in a well-planned and logical way.

I treated my response to the complaint as a project; it became the most important one I was working on. I applied the project-planning skills I used on technical work and had my response peer-reviewed by a lawyer before sending it to Engineering New Zealand by the response date they set. The following few weeks were the most stressful of my career, but finally, I was told that the complaint had been dismissed.

When I became an Investigating Committee Chair in 2011, my own experience made me better equipped for the role. I’d learnt that any engineer can be subject to a complaint, and it will probably come out of the blue.

If a complaint is made about you, take it seriously. Don’t keep it to yourself. Seek support and guidance from a trusted colleague. The first response is the most important, so it must be well-reasoned and based solely on the facts.

Think about having a lawyer or a colleague take a look at your response before you send it to Engineering New Zealand – and do everything you can to get it back to them on time.

When I consider a complaint as Investigating Committee Chair, I want to see a sound response from the engineer who has been complained about. It needs to provide clarity and a well-reasoned explanation for what happened so I can make a robust and fair decision.

Considering complaints involves:

  • dealing only with facts
  • finding out what happened when (knowing the real order of events helps in making sound decisions)
  • preparing a well-reasoned report that can be read and clearly followed by both parties.

Everyone involved in a complaint needs to take it seriously and act fairly, so we can reach the best possible outcome and improve the image of our profession in the public eye.

Cliff Boyt FEngNZ spent his career in local government and as an engineering consultant, and serves as an Investigating Committee Chair on behalf of Engineering New Zealand.

Read more about managing complaints