Briefing 6 – Punishing Your Best Tenants In Order To Control Your Worst

I once worked in an educational establishment in the public sector that required three levels of managerial sign-off (three signatures in ink) for expenses claims for as little as £10. The reason given was that this was necessary to prevent fraud from some of the staff. The cost of this, of course, was way beyond any monies protected from the minimal fraud of the few.

In a local takeaway, serviettes had been withdrawn because “some of our customers take whole handfuls”.

In a social housing organisation, all tenants had to provide a refundable deposit for maintenance call outs because “some of our tenants aren’t in when we call”.

In all cases, the cautious or punitive behaviour was justified because of the need to protect all clients or employees from the behaviour of a minority.

In recent meetings and workshops in the social housing sector, I have personally witnessed front line staff explaining these various protective and prohibitive rules and procedures to wholly innocent tenants in a tone that reminded me of a teacher during my school days who, smugly explained “Everyone will stay late until the culprit hands back the stolen blackboard duster”.

That tone of voice is superior, “knowing”, down-talking, and delivered so as to make all tenants feel as if they are part of the problem, as if they are guilty, as if they have personally caused these problems.

This kicks in when tired or unskilled front line staff vent their frustration on the nearest tenant and, even when being respectful, quotes rules that sheep dip the virtuous along with the guilty.

When we create limitations, rules and sanctions that affect all of our tenants, even if it is to prevent the damaging behaviour of the minority for the ultimate benefit of all, we tar them with the same brush by visiting upon them the same sanctions. It is an admission that we have failed to deal with the problem, to prevent it. It is the same as when a curfew is imposed on all in order to keep just a few off the streets. It may keep us all safe, but often it can also be an over-reaction, experienced as harsh, a blunt instrument, ultimately lowering tenant satisfaction.

If we have to set rules that are aimed at a few but affect all, we need to brief and train front line customer staff to act with humility and even apology when the innocent majority ask why they are being included. We need to acknowledge any distress and meet it with understanding and even compensation where appropriate.

One housing association I worked with was implementing a kind of “gold level” to apply to impeccable clients, separating them off positively and acknowledging their excellent attitudes and good citizenship with rewards and also the right to be outside of limiting and prohibiting rules aimed at less well behaved tenants. This can include:

– on time payment of rent

– keeping appointments

– involvement in social and tenant engagement initiatives

– socially responsible and environmentally positive behaviours

There can be problems with this as it can divide even as it rewards. It has to be done sensitively, openly and it won;t work in all communities.

Leaders also need to take an honest look at whether rules, procedures and systems aimed at preventing bad tenant behaviour, be it social or financial, which affect all, don’t do more harm than good. They need to look at better targeting the unacceptable practices and working to deal with them at source and to prevent them. It is all too easy (and lazy) to tar everyone with the same brush.

Some housing associations solve these problems at grass roots level with tenants stepping up and rooting out and handling problems on their own streets. Tenant committees, representatives and advocates working with, and supported by the housing association can work more locally and solve problems at the front door without clunky systems needing to be imposed that lower the customer experience unnecessarily for all.

But where procedures and rules do need to be blanket and broadly implemented, then a real skill needs to be evolved. It includes a sub set of skills that can be learned, often in a gritty and interactive training room or induction programme:

– the skills of empathising and acknowledegment

– the skills of explanation,  justification, persuasion and negotiation

– diplomacy skills

– the ability to work with diversity and adapt communication

– managing conflict, stress and anger

Tenants need catch-all procedures explained clearly and sensitively, with an opportunity to ask questions, with persuasion backed up with an accessible evidence base. Web sites can help; frequently asked question pages, plain speaking briefing leaflets, and on the door step communication. And if and when things improve, the organisation needs to be open-minded and flexible enough to remove any rules and sanctions, responding to change and seeking,and being seen to seek out situations where the best tenants do not feel they are seen as the same as the worst. Here a principle is key to establish and communicate internally and externally: that all broad brush limitations and prohibiting rules are seen as temporary. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

And the place to start is the attitude of staff from leaders right down to the front line. Our tenants are well-intentioned, capable and ethical. The minority of spoilers is just that … a minority.

Tenant care begins when tenants feel trusted and respected and that they are seen in the best possible light.

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About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

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