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Chain-of-Command Steps Necessary When Dealing with Complaints

By Dr. Darrell G. Floyd on November 07, 2017 hst Print

Hypothetical Scenario: A parent gets upset at something that happened in his or her child’s classroom or at an extracurricular event. The parent immediately contacts a central office administrator (or school board member), expecting the individual to quickly solve the problem to the parent’s satisfaction. Certainly, this is not the proper way to solve an issue, but how can school districts prevent these scenarios in the future?

Leadership Non-Negotiables
As superintendent of schools, I have three non-negotiables as an administrator: 1) keep the students’ best interest at heart at all times, 2) be professional at all times and 3) as problems arise, which they will, follow the chain of command in solving those problems. If proper plans and procedures are not in place and followed implicitly and adamantly, then that third non-negotiable runs the risk of being circumvented time after time.

Chain of Command
Chain of command refers to an organization’s hierarchy of reporting relationships – from the bottom to the top – regarding who answers to whom, who reports to whom and who supervises whom. The chain of command not only establishes accountability, it also lays out an organization’s lines of authority and decision-making responsibility.

Most school districts have a clearly defined chain of command, along with an easy-to-understand organizational chart. Both help communicate to employees, parents, students and community members the proper roles of authority along that hierarchy. School districts, for the most part, are vertical (not flat) organizations. They create layers of authority, lines of supervision and lay out appropriate lines of appeal.

What It Is Not
A properly implemented chain of command process is not a way to stall someone who has a complaint. It is simply an avenue that properly provides a process whereby employees closest to the problem have an opportunity to know about the problem, a chance to work on the problem and are able to effectively work out a solution to the problem that is agreeable to all involved.

An effectively established chain of command creates efficiency when reporting problems. As an example, if a school employee communicates a problem to his or her supervisor’s boss (rather than directly to the supervisor), then that supervisor doesn’t have an opportunity to correct the problem. It is much more efficient to direct complaints to the immediate supervisor in order to have that particular problem worked on at the lowest level before escalating the issue to upper management.

Employee Morale
When employees frequently ignore the chain of command, it can negatively affect the climate and morale within the school district. No one likes to find out from their supervisor that a problem has occurred at their level that they did not know about or that they have not had a chance to work on or solve ahead of time. Organizations that don’t properly adhere to the chain of command create an atmosphere of uncertainty and chaos, which, in turn, negatively affects employee morale. Poor climate and poor morale within a school district, in turn, can lead to high employee turnover and low productivity.

Leaders should make a point to teach employees, parents, students and community members about the proper chain of command. A problem should stay at the level at which it occurs unless there is some valid legal or ethical reason not to do so. Then leaders should frequently revisit this topic throughout the school year so that everyone knows its importance and knows that these expectations are important and necessary to the smooth operation of the school district.

Athletic and Performing Arts Activities
So how should properly implemented chain-of-command policies and procedures work in the areas of athletics and performing arts programs? Here are some suggestions.

Communication parents should expect from their child’s coach/director/sponsor:

  • The philosophy and expectations of the coach, director, sponsor.
  • Locations and times of practices and contests.
  • Team/organization requirements (i.e., fees, special equipment needed, school and team rules, etc.).
  • Procedures to be followed if the student becomes injured or ill during participation.

Communication coaches/directors/sponsors should expect from parents:

  • Concerns about the student should be expressed directly to the coach/director/sponsor at an appropriate time and place.
  • Specific concerns regarding the coach’s/director’s/sponsor’s philosophy and/or expectations should be expressed directly to that person.
  • Notification of any schedule conflicts should be communicated well in advance.

Appropriate concerns to discuss with a coach/director/sponsor:

  • The mental and physical treatment of the student.
  • What the student needs to do to improve.
  • Concerns about the student’s behavior.

Issues NOT appropriate for a parent’s discussion with a coach/director/sponsor:

  • Playing time.
  • Conversations concerning students other than the parent’s own child.
  • Strategy of the coach/director/sponsor.
  • Example: Conversations between a parent and a coach should center around the common goal of collaborating to help the child reach his or her potential. Quite often, there can be a major difference in simply the spirit and/or wording of a question. For example, while complaining about playing time on a varsity team is discouraged, asking the coach for feedback on what areas the student needs to improve upon to reach his/her potential is strongly encouraged.

When conferences are necessary

There are situations that may require a conference between a parent and the coach/director/sponsor. These are not discouraged, as it is important for each party to have a clear understanding of each other’s position. When these conferences are necessary, the following procedures are suggested in order to help promote resolution to the issue.

  • Call or email the coach/director/sponsor to set up an appointment.
  • The parent is encouraged to think about what he/she expects to accomplish as a result of the meeting.
  • The parent is encouraged to stick to the facts as he/she understands them.
  • The parent is encouraged NOT to confront the coach/director/sponsor before, during or after a practice or contest. These can be emotional times for everyone. Confrontations during these times do not promote resolution of the problem and often escalate it.
  • The parent is encouraged to get all sides of the story and situation. The parent is encouraged to use wisdom in what is said to others, especially before meeting with the student’s coach/director/sponsor. If not, then the issue can often escalate unnecessarily and make resolution much more difficult.

These are simply some tips and suggestions about how important it is to develop a well-thought-out chain of command, policies and procedures when dealing with complaints within a school district. But, as Robert Burns and John Steinbeck have both stated, try as we might to establish, implement and follow the chain of command, “The best laid plans of mice and men can (and often will) still go awry!” All administrators can do is to be as prepared as possible in advance.