One year in: An update on NASW’s complaint process

January 29, 2020

 

In October of 2019, the NASW membership approved an amendment to the bylaws, adopting a new process for handling complaints. Over the last year, the Board has begun the work of implementing this new process. A Standing Ethics Committee was formed in early 2020. Once convened, the committee engaged in case studies and training sessions for handling issues such as harassment and worked through the spring to develop internal procedures further. 

 

We are providing an update for members on how things have evolved over the last year in our community’s efforts to support an inclusive organization that fosters the interpretation of science and its meaning to society, in keeping with the highest standards of journalism. 

 

The complaint process seeks to, in the areas and circumstances in which NASW is able, reduce harms to individuals, to the community, to the organization, and to the field via a deliberate, fact-based decision-making process that was developed and approved by members. Even before difficulties presented by an ongoing pandemic, the multi-step process for any complaint was envisioned to proceed slowly over the course of months rather than days due to a variety of factors, including its reliance on volunteers to thoroughly vet all the claims in a complaint and conduct investigation.  Those administering the process do so with as much alacrity as circumstances allow, many of which are not under NASW’s control.

 

The full process, which is dictated by NASW’s bylaws,  is linked to via nasw.org/complaintprocess. An overview and some exposition is included below to help interested members understand this relatively new, and important, process.

 

What triggers a complaint?

If one or more members of the Association (the “Reporter”) believes in good faith that the conduct of a member (the “Subject”) is substantially prejudicial to the best interests of the Association, the Reporter may deliver a signed, written complaint (a “Complaint”) to the Executive Director or to any Board member (the “Administrator”). Substantially prejudicial conduct may include, but is not limited to, actions contrary to NASW’s Code of Ethics, Operating Principles, or Conference and Meeting Code of Conduct.

 

Complaints may be submitted by someone who is directly affected or who is indirectly affected by the conduct at issue. Third-party complaints are permitted by those with direct knowledge of the circumstances (e.g., a bystander, witness, or someone else who knows of the conduct via a news report or other means). Only one member is required to submit a complaint. Direct knowledge possessed by others may be shared in any investigation, though an additional Reporter(s) with direct knowledge may be listed. Complaints may be submitted by non-members and will be considered per Article VII, Section 4b. Anonymous complaints are not permitted. The information required in a complaint is listed at nasw.org/complaintprocess. Submission will be acknowledged, and the Reporter(s) contacted as appropriate with requests for further information.

The initial complaint submission is not an internal document created by NASW; rather it is a document produced by the Reporter(s) and may contain more information than necessary, sensitive information, unverifiable information, incorrect information, or information irrelevant to the alleged violations.

 

What happens after a complaint is received?

 

Convening of the Review Committee

Upon submission of a complaint, any conflicts, or perceived conflicts, of interest are determined. The names of the Reporter(s) and Subject(s) (not the complaint itself) are shared with the Board and Standing Ethics Committee members.

Some examples* for recusal include:

● The specific target 

● The alleged Subject

● Close friends with Reporter(s) and/or Subject(s)

● Business partners with Reporter(s) and/or Subject(s)

● Romantic partners with Reporter(s) and/or Subject(s)

● In a family relationship with Reporter(s) and/or Subject(s)

● In some hierarchical academic or business relationship with Reporter(s) and/or Subject(s)

● Engaged in a significant and personal conflict with Reporter(s) and/or Subject(s)

● In some other significant power relationship with any of the Reporter(s) and/or Subject(s)

*= These examples and framing are adapted from “How to Respond to Code of Conflict Reports” by Valeria Aurora and Mary Gardiner(Frame Shift Consulting LLC, 2018) 

While the names of Board members and Standing Ethics Committee members are known to NASW members, the identities of those on any particular Review Committee are confidential.

 

Preliminary Investigation

Once that assessment is complete, a preliminary investigation by the Review Committee will consider the existence of a credible question(s) that concerns whether a person engaged in particular conduct—or whether particular conduct is unprofessional and unethical—or both. Typically, for a credible question to exist, there would be enough facts known to NASW to warrant proceeding and conducting an informal or formal review of the questioned conduct and whether the facts are true, accurate, and complete. A credible question does not represent a conclusion about any person.

It is important to note that by accepting submission of complaints, investigating complaints, or by imposing temporary measures based on a credible question of professional and ethical conduct alleging a violation of any applicable policies, NASW is not making a judgment that the Subject(s) violated any policy and any statement or action to the contrary is not authorized by NASW. In these circumstances, before fact-finding is completed, NASW prioritizes preventative safety measures in the interest of the Association’s mission and the many it serves, over the interests of one or a few, if the two sides must be weighed.

 

Full investigation

After the preliminary investigation, the Review Committee will make a recommendation to the Board about whether or not to proceed with a full investigation. If the decision is made to proceed, the full investigation may include contacting some or all of the Reporter(s), Subject(s), and/or witness(es) in an effort to determine, per the process, whether facts are true, accurate, and complete. If no decision is made to proceed to a full investigation, the process ends here. 

Notice to Subject

After the full investigation, the Review Committee votes on whether or not to proceed with the complaint. If the vote is to proceed, they will draft a Notice of Complaint, which should include sufficient detail for the Subject(s) to mount a defense. If the Board approves the Notice of Complaint, the Board sends a copy of such notice to the Subject. The Notice of Complaint, in most cases, will differ significantly from the initially submitted complaint. The Notice of Complaint will contain the facts of the complaint considered to be true, accurate, complete, and relevant to the alleged violation(s) and may have some or all identifying information removed where privacy is warranted as long as sufficient detail remains for the Subject(s) to mount a defense.

In this multistep process, the Subject(s) may learn about a complaint either during the full investigation or with the Notice of Complaint. This provision is intended to protect the safety and privacy of all involved in a complaint.

The final steps

The Subject(s) can then choose to respond in writing or request a hearing. After the Board receives any response, an appropriate sanction, if any, is voted upon and the Subject notified of the decision. An appeal process is provided for new evidence and/or extenuating circumstances.

Regarding sanctions, the only sanctions NASW, as a professional society, has are such matters as the conferral/removal of honors and awards and, ultimately, the termination of a member’s membership. We do not have the power to enforce outside the reach of our policies, events, platforms, or membership. While we strive to reduce harm to individuals, to the community, and to the organization, NASW is a professional society and not a court of law or employer, so our reach is limited.

For reasons of privacy, NASW members should not expect to see a full reporting of results or summaries of any complaints administered. In most cases, a simple, annual tally with aggregate status (3 in-process, 2 closed, etc.) will be offered without any identifying information. In some cases, a statement to membership may be warranted at the conclusion of a specific complaint process. Reporter(s) will be notified of the general resolution of their complaint once the process is completed.

 

Confidentiality

The concept of confidentiality is critical. Those participating in administering the complaint process on behalf of NASW are committed to upholding the integrity of the process, including the provision that complaints remain confidential to the extent allowed by circumstances or the law, consistent with NASW’s need to investigate, correct, and prevent misconduct. Standing Ethics Committee members, Review Committee members, and Board members have not, and will not, share any information regarding any complaint outside of the process. 

 

We have had the opportunity to support this principle, defending the confidentiality of all involved in any past, present, or future complaint by filing a successful objection to a subpoena that NASW received in 2020. This objection required significant amounts of time and financial resources from our volunteers and sole staff member, precluding progress on other NASW activities, but it was critical to stand up for the integrity of our process.

 

In addition to the confidentiality demanded of those administering the process, anyone who receives information as part of an NASW investigation, including the status of any complaint, must maintain its confidentiality; failure to do so is a serious violation of the integrity of the complaint process. Anyone contacted as part of an investigation is provided notification of this provision in writing. Anyone contacted as part of an investigation is also notified that retaliation against any identified individual target, witness, or anyone who raises or helps resolve a conduct concern is a serious violation of the complaint process. Examples of retaliation can include, but are not limited to, threats or incitement of violence, harassment - including continued one-on-one communication after a request to cease - and verbal or physical abuse.

 

We’d like to be clear that confidentiality does not prevent those involved in initiating a complaint from sharing their own, personal and direct knowledge via other avenues. For instance, an assault victim must be free to file both a report with law enforcement and a complaint with NASW if they so choose. Nor can a Reporter(s) and Subject(s) be under gag order, prevented from talking about their personal experiences with a complaint process. Participants must be acutely aware, however, that any information they share is not information they have received from NASW or as part of NASW’s complaint process. 

 

From time to time, NASW members, via means beyond NASW’s control, may be aware that a complaint is in process. Complaints are not meant to be subject to the court of public opinion and posting or discussion of a complaint outside of the process shows disregard for the privacy of all individuals involved and the complaint process itself. Such disregard can perpetuate a chilling effect on submission of future complaints, and, as a result, the community’s efforts to build an inclusive organization.

 

Portions of this information were developed with a model policy developed and copyrighted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for the benefit of and sponsored by the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment In STEMM; original created by EducationCounsel LLC. This does not imply that the American Association for the Advancement of Science, EducationCounsel LLC, or the Consortium endorse its use or any changes made.

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