Complaint as Diversity Work

I am listening to those who have made complaints (1).  I am learning about institutions. Indeed what is striking is just how much my study of complaint follows on from my earlier study of diversity work.

I want to make being stricken an opportunity for thought.

How and why would complaint bring me back to the data I collected on diversity work?

In the introduction to On Being Included (2012) I reflected on my experience of conducting interviews with diversity practitioners. In the UK, diversity practitioners are typically housed in human resources departments; though some universities do have separate units for equality and diversity. Diversity workers often have to speak in the language of their employment; diversity as human resource. I noted how most of my interviews started with that language; happy talk of diversity as what the university is doing even being. But over the course of the interview, the happier languages wore out, and a quite different picture of the institution came into view.

I am still learning from the time it took for what was wearing to be shared.

Being a diversity practitioner means you are in effect appointed by an employer to transform the employer. It is a difficult position. One practitioner described the job as a “banging your head against the brick wall job.” Even if you are appointed by an institution to transform the institution, it does not mean the institution is willing to be transformed. In fact, many practitioners encounter resistance to their work; diversity is work because of that resistance. You have to find ways to get through because you are blocked. This is why I called diversity workers institutional plumbers; they have to work out where the blockage is or what stops something (for example a new policy) from moving through the system.

A wall is what you come up against because of what you are trying to do. The data I collected was thus full of walls; although it was not until after I completed the research that I noticed them.

Starting with complaint is starting from a different point. I have noted that a complaint is not a starting point, but it is how my conversations start. So the interviews are not about the happy languages wearing out. They are full of what is wearing right from the beginning.

Stories of complaint are often stories about the exhaustion of a process. Indeed, “exhausted” is even referenced in policies: “After the internal University processes have been exhausted, complainants have the opportunity to have their complaint independently reviewed by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA).” When the processes have been exhausted a person probably has been too. One interviewee described her complaint as an “energy zapper.”

I noted in earlier posts how a complaint about harassment can lead to more harassment. The more you complain about bullying the more you are bullied. Much of the behaviour that surrounds a complaint is not supposed to happen; it is not the official procedure. Many institutions have what I would call complaint pride, which is rather like diversity pride: about how an organisation would like to appear. Complaint pride takes the form of statements about wanting to learn from complaints; complaint pride is expressed as being willing to listen. I wonder if a fantasy of an open ear might operate in a similar way to a fantasy of an open door, as if anyone can get in when in fact they cannot.

The gap between what is supposed to happen and what does happen is densely populated. Diversity workers inhabit that gap. A complaint inhabits that gap too, which is to say, those who make complaints know all about what is not supposed to happen.

If a complaint is a record of what is wearing, it does not mean that in making a complaint someone is already worn down. Sometimes you might complain because you are tired of putting up with something that you do not think should be happening at all. Or you might make a complaint because you have a sense of optimism about how things could happen differently. One student talked of how she participated in a group complaint because she wanted to be part of a constructive process. She describes how they wanted “a positive outcome for the community.” She noted: “I think there’s this assumption that when you put in a complaint in an academic setting everyone is very convivial.” An experience can be what leads you to give up an assumption. An academic spoke of how she made a complaint because she was enthusiastic about her new job; because she had a sense of what she could do by bringing a problem to attention. She described herself as “bright eyed and bushy tailed,”  at that point, before things started to unravel. Even if you think of a complaint as constructive, it does not mean a complaint is received that way. In fact my research thus far has shown that complaints tend to be treated as destructive. A complaint biography often involves the experience of the costs of how you are treated.

Another academic described to me how she participated in a complaint because she “wanted to help” the institution deal with a problem that had already been recognised because there had been other cases in which the problem came up. But the complaint was still treated as a problem; just as it had in the other cases. This is important because the organisation had developed new procedures as a result of earlier cases. The conduct surrounding the complaint had not been changed by a change to the procedure (2). A wall can be a matter of conduct. Conduct refers not simply to behavior; conduct derives from “leading.” Conduct is how a group is directed.

A complaint teaches about institutional direction because a complaint is often treated as misdirection by the institution. Another way of saying this: to locate a problem is to become the location of a problem. Diversity work: becoming the location of a problem. The accounts of becoming the problem in this study are descriptions of institutional violence. One person spoke of how “the viciousness started to kick in.” The institutional response to complaint is to treat the complaint not necessarily as malicious (although many complaint policies do in fact include warnings about malicious complaints) but as being motivated in some problematic way: as if the complainer has some other agenda such as a desire to target others or to damage the university or to elevate themselves. Simply put: the efforts to stop a complaint include attempts to discredit the complainer. Indeed many of those I have spoken to have spoken of how they became the complained about; a complaint can be redirected to the complainer; as if she says something is wrong because something is wrong with her (3).

The figure of the complainer has an institutional life. This figure circulates in advance of a complaint. In fact many warnings about complaint evoke the risk of becoming the complainer. As Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page have noted, “When a woman files an objection to sexual harassment she becomes in the language of the institution a woman who complains, and by extension a complainer” (2015, 43). This extension can be costly: to become a complainer is to be slowed down.  Or at least that is how complaints are framed: as a slowing down. The frame has uses. Warnings about the costs of making a complaint cam function as attempts to stop a complaint from being made. As one interviewee describes “at every stage it was about stopping the complaint from going any further.”

No wonder I was reminded of my earlier project on diversity work: walls come up because of what you are trying to do.  The organisation might appear to be warm and inclusive. Making a complaint often means coming to know just how much that inclusion is a fantasy.

A complaint: things are not as they appear.

I have also been learning how organisations will do what they can to cover over a complaint often by using reports and techniques that appear to be about redressing the situation (4). For example a department commissioned a review after an enquiry, which had been initiated by multiple complaints about harassment. The review presented the department as a warm and inclusive environment. The person who wrote this review did not talk to the students who made the complaints. You can preserve a fantasy of the department as inclusive by not included those who would challenge that fantasy.

Maintaining a view of the institution as inclusive might mean not including those who do not share this view.

Erased from memory, a complaint can become like an unused path; it is harder to follow, becoming faint, becoming fainter, until it disappears. You can hardly see the sign for the trees. A complaint can be covered by new growth; new policies; new statements of commitment; action plans, reports.

Unused Path

I have more stories to collect; more paths to follow, however faint.

And: writing about complaint now feels right. More and more complaints about sexual harassment and sexual violence are coming out.  We know that the suppression of complaints is an effect of work, concerted and combined work by multiple parties. When the suppression fails, a complaint gets out; an invitation is made too, to others to share their complaints, too. That invitation can be pressure: it can hard to get it out; to speak out; not all of us can do it. I write this post in dedication to those who have experiences they would complain about but cannot complain because of their experiences.

And as you would expect, when complaints come out, the techniques for dismissing complaints become routine; talk of a “sexual inquisition”; critiques of moral panics and puritanical feminists; attempts to discredit those who complain; as if this about fashion or revenge or fragility or hurt.

You have to persist with it: a complaint requires dealing with the consequences of complaint.

Feminism: living with consequences.

A complaint: when a collective is necessary to bring something about.

Complaint as diversity work: what we have to do to dismantle the structures that do not accommodate us.

We are with you; we hear you.

Feminism is about giving a complaint somewhere to go.

Who knows what else will spill out when we do not keep a lid on it.

(1) So far I have completed 10 interviews and have collected 9 written statements. I have also had many informal conversations about complaint that are informing my work.

(2) I am not suggesting that changing procedures does not matter, but rather that a change to procedure has to involve a conversation about why the procedure needs to be changed that involves all staff and students; it needs to be understand as part of a culture change rather than as culture change.  Non-performativity helps me to describe how a procedure can be changed in order not to bring something else about. What is required is much harder work than a change to procedure.

(3) See note 1 on the misuse of complaint from my post, Cutting Yourself Off. If a person of colour makes a complaint because of racism, a person of colour can be complained about because of racism. My aim will be to address this complexity whilst recognizing that complexity can be misused (I called this “the misuse of the misuse of complaint”) as another way of discrediting those who make complaints because of an abuse of power (as if their complaint masks a will to power).

(4) In On Being Included (2012) I explored how techniques to redress racism – such as race equality policies – can be used as techniques for concealing racism. We learn from this: techniques used to redress inequalities can be used by those who benefit from inequalities.



Whitley, Leila and Tiffany Page (2015). “Sexism at the Centre: Locating the Problem of Sexual Harrassment,” New Formations. 86: 34-53.




















About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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23 Responses to Complaint as Diversity Work

  1. Marina says:

    Thank you for writing a brilliant article. I totally agree with you when it comes to lodging complaints. I experienced thistaff when making complaints about social services and my health care.

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