Simple Questions with Complicated Answers Part 5: What Should a PSI Do When they Receive a Complaint?

Written by: Deborah Eerkes


Q: What should a PSI do when they receive a complaint?

A: For those of you who read my previous blog post, you’ll recall that many survivors will make a complaint because they believe they are required to do so in order to get help or support. Therefore, the first step in any intake process is to provide information about all options available to make sure the survivor actually wants to make a complaint, rather than just disclosing their experience in order to explore options for academic considerations, personal support, or safety measures.

Start by encouraging the survivor to bring a support person or advisor along with them during intake and throughout the complaint – there can be a lot of information to take in and understand, especially if the survivor is also experiencing a trauma response. Provide an overview of the steps of a complaint: intake, possible interim measures, investigation, adjudication and potential appeal. While PSIs will have a variety of different procedures for addressing GBV complaints, the steps will generally follow a similar trajectory. If possible, provide the information in a handout or pamphlet as well, so they can refer to it later. They should also understand their own role in the process, where they might have some agency or control and where the decisions are completely out of their hands. Your procedures and normal practices should guide this conversation and might, for example, include:

  • How the process is driven by the survivor’s needs (is it initiated by the survivor and then taken over by the PSI or can the survivor make choices about how it unfolds?)

  • The role of the survivor (will they be a party to the complaint with procedural fairness rights or will they be treated as a witness only?)

  • Who they will interact with (for example, investigators, decision-makers, any potential interactions with the person who caused them harm or lawyers?)

  • How many times they will be expected to recount the details of their experience

  • How long the process will likely take, and how much of their time will need to be invested

  • Where they can find support throughout the process

  • The steps along the way to reduce harm and ensure trauma-informed practices

  • Whether they can withdraw from the process, and what would happen next if they chose to do so

  • How the information they disclose will be used and who it will be shared with (make it clear that the respondent will be given information about the survivor’s identity and the allegations made)

  • What other options are available while the investigation unfolds (are academic, residence or workplace-related considerations possible? What does the survivor need in order to feel safe and continue to participate in campus life? If necessary, is there an option to take a leave without academic consequences?)

Once a survivor has been informed and consents to a complaint process, the next step is to take the information needed to initiate the process. In order for a PSI to accept a complaint, it needs to establish a number of preconditions, including:

  1. Does the PSI have the authority or jurisdiction to impose discipline in this case?

    • Is the subject of the complaint in scope of the PSI policy?

    • Did the incident take place in a location and at a time covered by PSI policy?

  2. Would the allegation, if true, constitute a violation of PSI policy?

This assessment does not entail any kind of evaluation of the allegation itself, the credibility of the complainant, or the reliability of any evidence; that is all done in the investigation phase. As a trauma-informed measure, the information collected at the intake stage is very limited, consisting of only that information required to establish that the complaint meets the conditions set out in the above questions. Let the survivor know that you will not ask for any details at this stage. You only need to collect the survivor’s name and contact information and the name of the subject of the complaint, date, approximate time and location of the reported incident and a high-level description of what happened. For example:

  1. “[Complainant name] has reported that [respondent name] held them down and kissed them without consent at a party in [residence hall] on the night of April 20, 2022.” or

  2. [Complainant name] has reported that, starting in April 2021, [respondent name] repeatedly contacted them using sexually suggestive language in texts and social media posts, and when blocked, began following them on campus and waiting for them outside of their office. [Complainant] tried to avoid [respondent], who then began appearing near [complainant’s] home. Various similar behaviours continue to this day.

With just that small amount of information, and without any further analysis, the PSI can see that the described behaviour would constitute a policy violation (in example 1, the policy violation is sexual assault; in example 2, the described behaviour would be sexual harassment) and would be able to look up and verify the status of the respondent and the PSI’s authority to act, based on the scope of its SV policy. These complaints are ready to enter the complaint process, at which point a detailed statement (written or oral) is generally required. In other, less clear cases, or where the decision to accept the complaint rests with another person, the intake worker should let the complainant know next steps and when they will hear back. Where the PSI is unable to take up the complaint, they should provide a letter with reasons, a mechanism for the complainant to challenge that decision, any options for the survivor outside of a complaint, and a list of available supports and resources.

Wherever possible when a complaint is accepted, the intake worker (the term “intake worker” is intended to describe the function of receiving a complaint, and does not refer to any particular job title) should introduce the complainant to the next contact person in a “warm hand-off” so that it is clear to everyone involved who will be responsible for keeping the complainant up to date on the progress of the complaint. Again, wherever possible, this “transfer of trust” should happen at the beginning of each step in the process.

The intake process is a neutral exchange of information between the intake worker and the complainant. Throughout this stage, it is crucial not to speculate about what decisions might be made and what the outcome might be. This is critical, and functions to manage any unrealistic expectations the complainant might be coming in with. The reality for survivors is that the complaints process is difficult, possibly even retraumatizing. Coming forward with a complaint requires courage and resilience, both of which may be severely tested throughout the process. An intake worker must walk the fine line between compassion and neutrality to ensure that the complainant doesn’t enter the process with expectations that are unlikely to be met.

Trauma-informed practice at the intake stage builds trust with the complainant and sets the tone for the rest of the process. In particular, a PSI can reduce the potential for causing additional harm by being transparent about how the process works, providing information about supports and options inside and outside of the complaint process, and allowing the survivor to make informed choices about their participation in the process.

For a more detailed discussion of the intake stage, you can read Chapter 7, “Receiving a Complaint” in the Comprehensive Guide to Campus Gender-Based Violence Complaints and/or  watch the Deep Dive training session, “Strategies for Procedurally Fair, Trauma-Informed GBV Complaint Intake to Reduce Harm.


Suggested Reference : Eerkes, D. (2022, October). Simple Questions with Complicated Answers Part 5: What Should a PSI Do When They Receive a Complaint? Courage to Act.

Deborah Eerkes

Deb Eerkes is the Sexual Violence Response Coordinator at the University of Alberta. Her role includes reviewing and strengthening institutional policy and procedures, ensuring training programs are accessible and reflect best practices, and building a network of expertise and resources across the institution. Deb has formerly held a number of positions and responsibilities at the University of Alberta, including Student Ombudsperson, University Discipline Officer, Human Rights Officer and Director of Student Conduct & Accountability. She has been a key participant and leader of many institutional initiatives, including development of the Sexual Violence Policy suite, the restorative justice program in University residences, the Helping Individual at Risk policy suite, and the academic integrity program.

Related news