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'Snot-nosed, hostile, passive aggressive': Complaints about staff at Dublin welfare offices

Details of complaints were released to TheJournal.ie under the Freedom of Information Act.

SNOT-NOSED. HOSTILE. Dismissive. Passive aggressive.

These are just some of the words used in complaints about the conduct of staff members at social welfare offices in one Dublin division. Figures released to TheJournal.ie under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that over a six-month period, from October 2016 to April 2017, there were 151 complaints about welfare staff.

The highest number of complaints was in the Dublin South/Mid Leinster region, with 28 sent to the department during that period. There were also 20 complaints in the Dublin Central division and 19 in the Midlands.

A selection of complaints from the Dublin Central division was also released to TheJournal.ie. The majority of the client grievances relate to the attitudes of workers who dealt with them.

One complainant who attended the Navan Road office stated that in the process of renewing their medical card, they needed a letter stating they were on the self-employment scheme. Explaining what happened, they said:

[I] proceeded to the counter to give my request to be met with an absolute snot-nosed attitude, was informed that it would be posted out. When I asked may I collect it, I was again informed that it would be posted out.

Another client who had their Back to Education Allowance cancelled also made a complaint in relation to a staff member at the Navan Road Office. They stated that they went to the office to find out why the payment had been stopped.

A large section of the complaint was redacted by the department, which cited ‘personal information’ as the reason.

“While at the counter I noticed and read the code of conduct, which I assume applies to both employees and the public alike, and I feel that the Intreo officer’s behaviour was unnecessarily hostile after a certain point in our conversation,” the complainant stated further down in the letter.

“While I left entirely frustrated and angry, my sole intention on entering the Intreo offices was to get answers no how to proceed and while I did receive this to some degree, my experience there was one of insensitivity on the part of the Intreo officer and hostility after my enquiry about not being called.”

‘Puzzled and upset’

A client of the Cork Street centre wrote of being told at their local post office when they went to collect their payment that their benefit had been terminated.

“Naturally, I was puzzled and upset, and went immediately to Intreo Centre Cork St,” they said.

“My no. was called and I presented myself with a smile and a ‘Hello’, to be greeted with ‘“PPS no’. From the gentleman on the other side of the counter.

To cut a very long and tedious story short, he asked a colleague in the booth adjacent to him for assistance, this young man, within a minute of looking over my details, sorted the problem, offered to take care of it….
He now understood what had to be done to ensure that I wouldn’t have to live on fresh air for the next two months. [Redacted] didn’t seem concerned in the least that I might find it a problem to function until my benefit was reinstated, or offer any of the platitudes that would befit someone in his capacity (of dealing with distressed, humiliated individuals] to proffer.

The letter did add that porters “couldn’t be more helpful” and that the women on reception were “so helpful, kind and efficient”.

‘Dismissive’

In a complaint about a member of staff at the Intreo centre in Bishop’s Square, the client said the woman was “rude and dismissive”.

“[Redacted] has been giving me the wrong information which is slowing down the process of my claim going through, without giving me any reason of rejecting the proof I have brought in so far,” they said.

This person earlier in the email referenced documents they had brought to their appointment as proof of address, but specific detail of the interaction between them and the staff member about this documentation was redacted by the department when it released the correspondence.

A comment card at the Nutgrove office stated that the person was “never given a chance to make a query”.

The lady I spoke to today [redacted] was too busy being passive aggressive and obnoxious for one to ask a question. I was so affronted with her manner.

Another client of the Nutgrove office wrote that they went to the office to “to inquire about job seekers allowance and get advise [sic] and guidance about applying to do an internship or going back to college”.

I have never been spoken to in such a dismissive and rude manner before. I do not feel this is an acceptable way to be treated. I have never wrote a letter of complaint to any company before, but I felt strongly about this incident and wanted to inform you about the level of customer service I had received today.

A complaint made in February of this year made reference to three members of staff at the Blanchardstown office.

“There is without any doubt after what happened yesterday, a vendetta of a personal nature directed towards me by these people,” they wrote.

The explanation started with “When I got down to my local office I was met by…”, but a substantial section of the complaint was redacted, including all of the specific details of this person’s interaction with staff.

It ended:

This being as it is has already led me to contact the Ombudsman, they will only follow the procedure so I must lodge it with your department first to allow your investigation. I am not filled with confidence in this system of procedure after what’s happened.

One of the complaints accused a staff member at one office in Dublin of being “rude, raciest [sic], and arrogant”. However the specific detail of the interaction was redacted, with “personal information” given as the reason by the department.

During this six-month period, there were also 66 complaints about the time taken to process a claim, three complaints about the time taken to process a public services card and five about office facilities.

‘Worry and stress’

John Stewart, coordinator of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed (INOU), said his organisation sometimes receives negative feedback about the attitude of staff at welfare offices.

“People do report to us they feel sometimes their concerns are being dismissed or they feel they are not being listened to.

It’s important that officials recognise when people lose their jobs, when people are unemployed, they find themselves in situations that can cause them a lot of personal anxiety, worry and stress when trying to survive on a very low-income.

He said that in some cases, people only find out that their benefit has been cancelled when “they go along to the post office to collect it, to be told sometimes in a very public place, and the post office don’t know why it has happened”.

“I think it’s really important that staff have knowledge and awareness of the impact unemployment has on people. I always say that people should recognise and respect the staff who are delivering these services as well… They are often under significant pressure themselves because of the volume,” Stewart said.

“But there is a different power relationship between the officials and the poor unfortunate unemployed person who is trying to access the payment and information and may be getting frustrated at what they perceive as a lack of understanding or empathy.”

He said there is a need for the Department of Social Protection to invest in training and to support frontline staff as they are often dealing with people who are in a particularly stressful period in their lives.

The department’s customer charter commits to treating clients with “courtesy and respect” and asks that people attending its centres equally treat staff in a respectful and courteous manner.

Source: Department of Social Protection

In response to a query from TheJournal.ie, the Department of Social Protection said it provides a course on its training curriculum for staff called Frontline Customer Service.

This module aims to “raise awareness of the basic principles of professional customer service and to equip participants with the necessary skillset to manage challenging behaviour in the workplace”.

“Since 2016 all new entrants to the DSP are scheduled for this training module, while other staff express their interest in this course or are recommended to attend by managers,” it said. Between 2015 and the end of June this year, 1,237 staff received this training.

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