How do you deal with difficult members? 

Pardon the Interruption

This article is just an example of the content available to mallowstreet members.

On average over 150 pieces of new content are published from across the industry per month on mallowstreet. Members get access to the latest developments, industry views and a range of in-depth research.

All the content on mallowstreet is accredited for CPD by the PMI and is available to trustees for free.

The Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme trustees have had to put in place a new protocol for dealing with disruptive scheme members after receiving floods of sometimes intimidating correspondence by a small number of people. What can administrators and trustees do if a situation turns nasty? 
 
Interactions with dissatisfied members can sometimes become uncomfortable, but it appears that members of the Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme have taken things a step too far, forcing trustees to protect administrators and the running of the scheme.  
 

MPS faces ‘unmanageable level of correspondence’ 

 
The Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme trustees do not have an enviable role; the scheme is without an active employer and depends on a government guarantee - never drawn on to date - which the government uses to justify a 50% share of any surplus, an arrangement the trustees recently challenged in vain despite backing from MPs. 
 
   
It has now also reported a deficit as of its latest valuation, which may weaken the arguments brought forward in discussions with the government if it does end up relying on the guarantee. 
 
Whether the member interactions the scheme has to deal with relate to any of these events is unclear, but what seems clear is that member relations have suffered. The scheme’s new trustee chair Paul Trickett said in a recent member newsletter that “the last few months have seen the Scheme receive an unmanageable level of correspondence from a small number of individuals seeking to disrupt the running of the Scheme”. 
 
He said the sheer volume of correspondence means the service to members is starting to suffer, adding that “this correspondence is often intimidating in nature and, as such, is beginning to have a detrimental impact on the wellbeing of our staff, whose job it is to run the Scheme on a day-to-day basis”.  
 
To counter the negative effect of this type of correspondence, in September the trustees agreed that action should be taken immediately to address it, and that the fund is introducing a new set of protocols for dealing with “malicious correspondence”, said Trickett. “Simply put, the Trustees will not let the actions of a few negatively impact the service we provide to members, or the wellbeing of our staff. The Trustees will take whatever action is necessary to stop this happening,” he added. 
 

Resolve, keep audit trails and communicate 

 
Problems with difficult members can sometimes occur if they feel they are being unfairly treated. Ian McQuade, a director at governance specialists Muse Advisory, said he has seen situations where a very small number of members or groups of members “feel they have been badly dealt with and they can become difficult. The administrators, being the first point of contact, are the ones regularly on the receiving end.” 
 
When this happens via phone, it is important that the call is passed to the right person to deal with, although the administrator may not always be in a position to resolve the matter. 
 
If the complaint is one that the administrators can resolve, they should of course look to do so, said McQuade, starting by speaking to the member or ‘ringleader’ of the group to find out what the real issue is, through to internal dispute resolution and, if it is still unresolved, arbitration.  
 
“Relying on written communication to achieve this can be the preference, due to the clear audit trail, but sometimes it can be sensible to have a call,” he said - and even then, it might be a good idea to record the call so that the audit trail still exists.  
 
“Finally, if all routes have been exhausted, we have seen trustees receive legal advice that it is acceptable to no longer respond to the member on the topic at hand,” said McQuade. “It is also acceptable to explain to members that the tone of their communications must be moderated, particularly where the member is threatening,” he added. 
 
Those on the receiving end of member threats should be given support through training and practical tips on boundaries and conflict resolution, and for managing their own mental health and emotions. “Most administrators, pensions managers and trustees place a high value on giving good member service and it can be deeply unsettling for them to find themselves in situations of heightened conflict,” said McQuade. 
 
The best way to avoid situations escalating in the first place is by communicating the facts in an understandable way, he advised, and where the issue is a matter of opinion, the priority is about ensuring that the reasons for the decision are clear and understood. “The member may not agree with the decision, but at least they should be able to understand how the decision was reached,” he said. “Sometimes spending a little money upfront on early intervention can just nip things in the bud.” 
 

Speak to ringleaders and line up help 

 
Although he has not seen members disrupt a scheme at scale, Arshad Khan, senior counsel at law firm Sackers, agreed that where this is the case, the root cause of the issue should be sought and where possible resolved. Trustees can try to avoid such situations arising through good communication, for which he suggested a Q&A style format. He also recommended being transparent about what the scheme can reasonably achieve. 
 
Trustees should be careful to balance the interests of different groups of members, he noted, as members’ interests do not always align with each other. “Trustees should recognise what the right balance is to strike between all members when determining how to respond to the vocal minority, and that the 'right balance' might shift as time passes or circumstances change,” he said. 
 
From a legal perspective, trustees have obligations under internal dispute resolution rules and GDPR, as well as disclosure regulations, “but management tools exist if repetitive types of complaints or correspondence is raised”, said Khan. The trustees could for example invite a spokesperson or representative to meet with them or with the employer. Smoothing over a situation before it gets out of hand “could be a worthwhile exercise in communication and people management”, he observed. 
 
Finally, trustees should think about getting help. “If a wave of adverse criticism is being experienced, trustees could also prudently make contact with public bodies such as [the Pensions Ombudsman, Pensions Regulator and Information Commissioner’s Office] to explain their situation and seek guidance in relation to claims management where the sheer scale of correspondence is impacting on the 'business as usual' tasks the scheme has to perform for all its members,” he said. 
 

Have you had to deal with difficult scheme members? How did you address the situation?