Tackling complaints about discrimination

Date published: 16 May 2023 Blog

Lauren Long

Ombudsman Leader

Lauren leads on our casework policy and approach to complaints involving discrimination, vulnerability, domestic and economic abuse and gambling-related harm.

In this blog, Lauren looks at the types of discrimination complaints people refer to us, how financial businesses should approach them and how we can help. And highlights our new guidance notes to help financial services firms understand how we approach and resolve complaints about discrimination.

Complaints about discrimination – where people tell us they’ve been treated unfairly, differently or have been excluded because of who they are – can involve significant harm.

So it’s important firms tackle these complaints head on, with care and respect – and that they learn quickly when something’s gone wrong.

We encourage firms to think about how they can create safe environments, where customers feel comfortable raising issues and can be confident they’ll be taken seriously and treated fairly.

Discrimination complaints that we see

The complaints consumers bring to us about equality and discrimination are wide ranging and cut across all the products we cover. Consumers who raise these complaints come from all walks of life.

In the complaints we’ve seen, consumers have told us they’ve been treated differently directly or indirectly because of their race, gender, disability or other protected characteristic.

Complaints may involve a single interaction with a financial services firm or several interactions over weeks and months. These interactions might be face to face, over the phone or online.

They may be about how a product or service has been provided or sold, or how access to a product or service has changed. Or they may be about how a firm has or hasn’t adapted its customer service to meet a customer’s needs.

In some complaints we see, firms have stuck to a standard process or approach rather than listening and taking a human approach to sorting out a problem. We also see examples where firms haven’t considered the needs of their customer base before they’ve made a change to a product, process or service.

Firms have responsibilities under equality law to meet customers’ needs and an overarching duty to treat customers fairly. There can be an overlap between certain protected characteristics and characteristics of vulnerability.

When a customer is treated unfairly or differently because of who they are this can:

  • make them financially vulnerable
  • impact their physical and mental health, and sometimes their independence, and
  • lower their trust and confidence in financial service firms.

Handling discrimination complaints

Raising a complaint can be a difficult and intimidating experience at the best of times. But it’s particularly hard to speak up about discrimination and doing so can take a significant emotional and physical toll.

Firms may find complaints about discrimination challenging. It can be a difficult subject to discuss. There may be a nervousness about saying or doing the wrong thing. But sometimes this results in firms not investigating or responding fully to the issues a consumer raises.

Firms need to investigate concerns thoroughly, neutrally, and with an open mind to challenge their own assumptions and practices.

If your firm receives a complaint about discrimination, it’s critical to listen to what your customer says, taking into account their lived experience. You must also create a safe environment to support openness and disclosure throughout the complaints process.

We see many examples of firms handling complaints about discrimination well. But we also see cases where they don’t, which compound and exacerbate the impact on a consumer.

If your firm uncovers a problem, you need to acknowledge it, tackle it quickly and put things right to avoid further harm.

Sometimes we see cases where a firm could have taken practical steps to resolve things much sooner. Doing so would have reduced the frustration, hurt, and inconvenience experienced by the consumer. Sometimes we’ve even seen the relationship and trust between a firm and its customer break down.

Where we’ve seen good practice, firms have looked to repair this relationship by acting transparently and sharing details about:

  • the investigation carried out
  • the evidence gathered, and
  • the reasons for the conclusions reached.

Learning from discrimination complaints

We hope our discrimination notes help firms handle discrimination complaints more confidently, so they can show they care, have listened and understood.

We also hope that a better understanding of how we resolve complaints, will help firms improve their customer service and product provision for the benefit of all their customers.

Read our guidance notes for financial businesses