Other than drunken pub patrons, customer anger seems to be common in social security offices. In Australia, until recently, there were few screens or barriers between staff and customers, perhaps an indication of Australia’s egalitarian culture, or perhaps, naiveté of current reality.
Centrelink, Australia’s social security agency, responded to the workplace hazard by banning those customers from face-to-face contact. Several people complained about this restriction and the complaints were investigated by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, whose report was released today, 25 August 2008. The Ombudsman found
“that in most instances the decisions to withdraw face-to-face contact were not unreasonable, but highlighted the need for national procedural guidelines to be developed to assist staff when managing customers who exhibit abusive or threatening behaviour.”
This justifies the removal of face-to-face contact, or in OHS terms, the risk has been eliminated.
However, the safety of staff may have been guaranteed but the anger of the client might still remain. It is in this context that the Ombudsman has recommended further changes to processes for the benefit of staff and clients.
Centrelink should be
• reviewing letter templates to ensure customers are properly notified of their review rights and the review process
• implementing strategies to ensure relevant staff are aware of the review processes required by the guidelines, and providing further training where appropriate
• introducing an appropriate internal monitoring/review mechanism to ensure quality and consistency in the application of alternative service arrangements
• encouraging decision makers to explore the most appropriate alternative servicing arrangement for future contact before deciding to withdraw face-to-face contact
• amending the guidelines to ensure staff record an appropriate level of detail to justify their actions and decisions following an instance of aggressive behaviour.
The Ombudsman’s report is available for download HERE