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How to Complain and be Heard

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Extracted from the “Military Spouse” written by Patrician Gerecht and CSM(R) Mark Gerecht.

Usually spouses or service members who are having problems just want to be heard (perhaps just to vent) and be provided a reasonable degree of comfort that their issue has been addressed.  This chapter will focus on how you as an individual will increase your chances of having your issue received in a positive manner by members of the chain of command. This chapter will also outline courses of action that are available to you should the initial steps fail.

Attitude and Tone:

      The most important aspect of voicing your concern is to ensure you have the right attitude and tone.  By this we mean:

  • Be calm and even-tempered.
  • Don’t be emotional and/or demanding.
  • Don’t try to intimidate the chain of command.

 Using the wrong attitude and tone will cause you and the chain of command a lot of heartburn and hard feelings.  In the end nobody wins .

Goals:

Your 1st goal should be to have your concern heard by the appropriate agency or person and for them to participate as an active listener.  Your 2nd goal should be to gain credibility with the individual you are talking with in order to resolve the issue in a factual, courteous and professional manner.  Approaching someone with the wrong attitude and tone (being emotional, making unrealistic demands, etc.) will not help you resolve the issue quicker, and it will not help you in dealing with individuals in the future.  The Army Family Action Plan (AFAP), is a great tool for getting issues that may affect the whole military community resolved.  These are issues that people in the community point out that are then addressed at the installation level, and eventually some are presented to the senior leaders of the Army for resolution.  The installation program usually culminates in a 2 or 3-day work shop at each installation on an annual basis.  Our sister services may also have a similar mechanism for resolving issues.

Steps to Resolving A Concern or Complaint:

  • Identify what the exact concern or problem is.  Be able to write it down in a short sentence, providing all pertinent details.
  • Know what type of resolution or solution you want.  Most leaders will ask you “What would you like me to do?” Or “What do you see as a workable solution?”  By having a workable solution, you have started to establish credibility.
  • Do your research:  Find out what regulation, manual, or reference covers the area you are voicing your concern over.  Read it and understand it.  If the military is doing it, you can bet there is a reference to cover it!
  •  Look for key words in the reference that may provide you or the other party latitude to make decisions.  These can work for or against you depending on your concern.  Keywords in this category will be words like: could, should, may, can, commander’s discretion, etc.
  • Also look for key words that are fixed or required actions.  These would be words like: will, will not, requires approval from a higher authority, must, cannot, etc.  These words leave little doubt that an action must or must not occur.  Again, depending on your concern these words can help or hurt your case.
  • If you believe or perceive that the desired outcome is not a workable solution (under the current rules), you may ask or request what is commonly known as an exception to policy.  In some cases, Commanders at various levels can grant an exception to policy depending on the issue and the reference governing the issue.  
  • How does an exception work?   Here is an example – Let’s say because of ill health one of your parents is coming to live with you for a period of time to exceed 30 days and you are living in post quarters.  The current housing policy states that a guest or guests can only reside in quarters for no more than 30 days.  In this situation you would lay out the facts and circumstances of the case and request that your family member be allowed to stay “for either a specified period of time, for example, 90 days or an indefinite period of time, based on the illness.” If you are granted a specified exception (for example 90 days), then prior to the expiration date you can apply for another exception or your family member(s) must leave.

In summary, be sure you:

  • Know what the concern is.
  • Provide a list of solutions that would satisfy you.
  • Do your homework by researching.
  • Have a fall-back plan with a request for an exception to policy. (If this is a reasonable/rational request, given the situation.)

*** Understand that in some cases a Commander cannot legally, ethically, or morally, make an exception to policy, regulation, etc.

  • Next find out who you should speak with.  Usually you should start at the lowest level of the command.  These are the individuals who may have the most knowledge about a situation and the facts bearing on the case.  If you go around them you set the wrong attitude and tone.  In addition, when you speak with someone higher in the chain of command, they must in turn go back to the lowest level and get their side of the issue before they can give you an answer.

Note:  There are times in which you may feel uncomfortable discussing an issue with the chain of command or in which you believe that using the chain of command may result in retribution or hardship.  In these extreme cases it may be appropriate to seek resolution at a higher level or from an external agency.  Please keep in mind these cases are extremely rare.  In addition, most Commanders/Leaders want to do the right thing and will aggressively try to assist you in obtaining your goal.  They usually want to resolve an issue quickly and in the right way.

  • If you do not receive a satisfactory answer you can choose to continue voicing your concern up the chain of command until you receive what you believe to be a reasonable answer, the decision is explained to your satisfaction (even though you may not like the answer), or you are determined to correct what you honestly believe to be an injustice or unfair policy.
  • Once you have exhausted your efforts in the chain of command you can take your concerns to other agencies on post or within the Army. These agencies are specifically available for resolving issues and complaints.  They include:
  • The Local Inspector General’s Office (IG).
  • The Local Judge Advocate General (Legal Office).
  • The Local Equal Opportunity Office (EO/EEO).
  • The Post Commander may also have a hotline established for individuals to call with their concerns, issues, or suggestions.

Note:  Each office listed above also has a Department of the Army (DA) office as well.  You may choose to utilize this office.  However, be sure that you understand the process.  For example: if you took your complaint to the Department of the Army Inspector General’s office (DAIG).  They would take your complaint with all the details you provide and turn the case over to the installation Inspector General to investigate.  Once the installation completes their investigation, they will report the findings back to DAIG and they would in turn report back to you.  There is a time and place for such complaints but in reality, the problem goes back to the lowest level to be resolved, so why not start there.  If you have to go forward you can show that you have placed faith in the system and utilized the process as it was designed to be used.  An IG complaint is a serious issue, so be sure that the issue you are raising is valid and serious, make sure you have your facts straight. 

Other Channels for Resolution:  These courses of action are only used as a last resort, during an emergency or extreme issue. 

  • Writing a letter to your Congressional Representative.
  • Writing a letter to your Senator.

Note:  In these letters explain the problem, what you would like to see as a solution, the actions you have taken to try and resolve the problem at your level.  Be clear and to the point.

            There are times when it may be appropriate to go over someone’s head to resolve an issue.  These would be cases in which it is obvious that someone is not being responsive, is blatantly not adhering to a regulation, instruction, or policy, has been unprofessional, etc.  However, it is important to remember that you should ensure that your decision to take it higher is clearly based on the facts and not emotion.

Most importantly, treat others like you want to be treated.  This is perhaps the most important aspect of the process.  It will almost always ensure cooperation at the lowest level, enhance your credibility, and allow you to be viewed as a reasonable individual. 

Do:

  • Identify the issue, concern or problem.
  • Know what type of resolution you want.
  • Be prepared to request an exception to policy if applicable.
  • Research the reference for facts and look for keywords.
  • Attempt to resolve the problem at the lowest level.
  • Go up the chain of command or to an external agency if you are not satisfied with the quality of the response you receive.
  • Ensure you treat others like you want to be treated.
  • Be factual.
  • Keep the conversation as positive as possible (attitude and tone).

Avoid:

  • Being seen as someone:
  • Who constantly complains
  • Who cannot be satisfied
  • Unreasonable
  • Emotional
  • Who shoots straight to the top to solve an issue
  • Threatening statements like, “I’m going over your head…I’m going straight to the top…I’ll have your job, etc.”  These comments set a negative tone and put the person you are speaking with on the defense.  Odds are that individual you are speaking with has some degree of validity to their response.  Threats are not usually taken seriously because usually (there are exceptions) the person you are dealing with believes or knows they are correct in their response.  Threatening statements only take away from your credibility and show you as emotional.

Common Sense Check:  A final note, you must make the determination of when to stop raising an issue.  The phrase “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” is a true expression but ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my request reasonable?
  • Did I receive a reasonable response?
  • Is this concern/issue worth continuing up the chain of command?
  • Is this concern/issue a battle I really need to fight?
  • Are you fighting this battle on someone else’s behalf?  If so, why aren’t they fighting it?  Should you really be fighting this battle?  Are you championing to someone else’s cause?  If your answer is “yes” than you probably need to re-evaluate.

If you answered “yes” to the above questions (except the last, your answer should always be NO to the last question).  Then continue to pursue your concern.  In some rare cases you must be persistent to get an issue resolved.  Perhaps your persistence may not help your situation but perhaps it will help those that have the same issue later.  Maintain your faith and confidence in the chain of command; they will normally solve your problem quickly.

Family Support Chain:  When problems involve the non military spouse, give the Family Readiness Group a chance to work the problem.  The Family Readiness Group leader or the Reserves also have Family Readiness Liaison Personnel or a Unit Administrator.  These individuals have direct contact with the chain of command and can usually solve problems quickly.  Allow these individuals the opportunity to try and solve the problem first especially in a deployment situation. 

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Extracted from the “Military Spouse” written by Patrician Gerecht and CSM(R) Mark Gerecht.

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Mark is a Retired Command Sergeant Major with 26 years of military leadership experience. He held 3 military occupational specialties (Field Artillery, Nuclear Weapons Tech, and Ammunition Ordnance). Mark is one of the leading military authors in the fields of leadership, counseling, and training.

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