Author: Gareth Jones, Published on: November 18, 2020
I suspect many of us have been involved in investigations where the complainant has unreasonable expectations that are impossible to meet. They are unwilling to accept reasonable and proportionate resolution. They may try to control your investigation. Their complaint may have become their whole life. They demand vindication and retribution – not merely a head on a platter but several organs too.
A technical term for such a person is querulant. The literature – and my own experience – indicates that they are generally well-educated folks, usually male, usually middle-aged, with no history of mental health issues.
There is often a legitimate issue at the root of their grievance(s). But their belief that whatever it is they are complaining about is such a gross injustice drives unrealistic expectations – in particular about how those they deem responsible should be sanctioned. Their obsession with their complaint is often accompanied by unreasonable behaviour to others, including you.
They can be a nightmare, from an investigator’s perspective. They will take up a vastly disproportionate amount of your time and resources, if given sufficient leeway.
The Behaviour of Unreasonable Complainants
An unreasonable complainant’s conduct often follows a pattern. They will typically:
- Present their complaint in significant detail – possibly framed in such a way as it fits your mandate and possibly as a ‘systemic’ issue.
- Try and become your friend.
- Cherry pick the evidence they provide – withholding, ignoring or disparaging evidence that doesn’t support their position.
- Produce ‘ new ’ evidence and/or change theories, when they sense that you may not be buying what they are selling.
- Encourage or discourage you from pursuing an investigative avenue, depending on what they feel is advantageous for them.
- Browbeat and threaten, if you don’t do what they want you to do.
- Complain about you – using any tool at their disposal, including social media.
Tips for Managing Unreasonable Complainants
So, how do you deal with a querulant, from an investigative perspective? This is what has worked for me, after much trial and – often painful – error.
- Keep your antennae up from the get-go. Does something seem not quite right? Is the redress requested reasonable? Has the complainant been agency shopping?
- Do a thorough intake. Get as much detail as you can, up front.
- Manage expectations. Explain what they can expect of you and what your expectations are of them. Set rules about how and when to make contact, and that abuse will not be tolerated.
- Focus on the complaint, not the complainant. Easier said than done in many cases.
- Document everything. Always have a witness. Always tape record interviews and calls – with consent, of course. This will protect you against future allegations about your conduct – for example, that you made promises that you didn’t keep.
- Be thorough. Don’t be shy about asking probing questions, including about the provenance of the evidence the complainant provides.
- Ask for all their evidence up front, including any correspondence from other complaint handling agencies they have dealt with. Have them undertake that they have provided all of it to you.
- Your safety is always the primary concern, particularly when delivering news that the complainant will likely find unacceptable. Do a risk assessment. I’ve been physically threatened in these situations, including by a professional in the living room of his $2 million home. Like an idiot, I had gone there alone to deliver what was, from his perspective, bad news.
- When closing the complaint, explain why – in writing, in detail.
Developing the skills to spot and manage querulants is an important part of being an effective and competent complaint handler and investigator. Learn more about querulants in our Fundamentals of Investigation and Investigative Interviewing courses.