How many times have you taken a Continuing Education (ce) course that didn't quite live up to your expectations? It's important to distinguish whether you just didn't enjoy the course, you didn't like the course content, or the course was misrepresented. Perhaps the course wasn't the best learning venue for you (see May 2001 issue on Learning Environments). If it was a "live" course there could have been logistical issues such as uncomfortable chairs, poor acoustics, or lack of temperature controls that made the learning difficult.
If you determine that the ce course didn't deliver as advertised, the stated objectives weren't met, the quality of the materials were substandard, or you feel that some type of impropriety occurred (either financially or inappropriate behavior by the course facilitator) then you need to find what recourse is available to you.
The first step is to address your concerns directly with the course provider. Most providers will be open to your comments as long as they are presented in a respectful manner.
Determine ahead of time several options for remedying your complaint. Some possibilities are: a full or partial refund; taking the course again; a commitment on the provider's part to make necessary changes.
If you are unable to resolve your complaints directly with the provider or the provider's company, some other options are: contact the Better Business Bureau in the provider's city; lodge a complaint with state and national organizations; file a lawsuit.
I contacted 2 national associations (AMTA and ABMP), one certifying board (NCBTMB) and 4 state licensing boards (where CEUs are required). Neither the AMTA nor the ABMP have "approved providers" so there isn't any action they can take. The process for handling complaints with NCBTMB Category A Providers is to submit your complaint in writing to the NCBTMB office. After it is reviewed, NCBTMB may directly contact the provider and require that the complaint be addressed or changes in policy be made. If it can't be resolved to NCBTMB's satisfaction, then the provider could lose his or her Category A Provider status.
Many states require ceUs for license renewal. Here are the results of the 4 we contacted: In Washington, therapists can receive their ceUs from any provider and there is not a process for complaints; In Iowa, ce must be taken from Iowa state board approved providers and complaints are handled by the Massage Board which meets 4 times per year; In Texas, a ce provider must be state, nationally or university approved and while there is no formal complaint process, you can write to the board; Nebraska also requires ce providers to be state approved but they don't have a tangible process for complaints. As you can see, the requirements and levels of support vary dramatically. If you have a complaint, check with your local or state board to ascertain if there is anything they can do to remedy the situation.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) can be quite helpful. The BBB requires that complaints be filed in writing. Contact your local office by phone to request a form or you can go online. The URL for most cities is www.[cityname].bbb.org. Thus, the address in my city is www.tucson.bbb.org. If you can't locate your BBB directly, just go to the main site at www.bbb.org and you will find a search site for other BBB offices in the U.S. and Canada.
When you submit your complaint form you can also request mediation or arbitration. The BBB is affiliated with many trained mediators and arbitrators (the cost of these services vary). Once you have submitted your complaint, a copy is mailed to you and the provider/company. This letter also contains a status update section.
You can also call the BBB before taking a ce program to find out if the provider/company has any complaints on file. The BBB will give you broad categories of the type of complaints, the number of complaints, and the resolution status.
Filing a lawsuit is usually the last action to take once all other avenues of resolution have failed. If you are looking for financial reimbursement you can take your complaint to Small Claims Court. This can be a hassle if the provider is not in your area. Also there are limits to the amount you can sue for in Small Claims Court and that varies by state. Contact your local Justice Court for the specific rules and procedures. Nolo Press provides a good deal of information on this topic. (See Nolo's Small Claims Court products).
If your complaint has to do with issues such as sexual harassment, you can file a civil suit. Contact your State Attorney General for information on how to proceed.
It can be quite tempting to tell everyone about a bad experience you've had with a ce provider. I've overheard uncomplimentary conversations about providers and read similar postings on Internet newsgroups. Be careful of what you say so you are not sued for defamation.
The two major branches of defamation are slander (verbal) and libel (written). Make sure that you state your concerns as your opinion. It's fine to be emphatic and say, "I won't do business with this person and nobody else should either!" Always stick to the facts. The minute you start embellishing the truth you get into trouble. For instance saying someone is a crook could be actionable, but stating that you never received a refund or the course was too basic is fine.
Action can be brought against you if you try to interfere with someone's right to contract. The term for this is Tortious Interference with Contractual Relations. The measure is if you stated something that is not true and contacted someone who is doing business with that person. For instance, you know a school has hired a ce provider to facilitate a workshop and you contact that school and badmouth the provider; you could be liable. Again, you can state facts, but be cautious about the wording. Gary Wolf, Attorney at Law in Tucson, Arizona says; "Truth is the best defense for a defamation claim."
Most problems can be averted by due diligence (see March 2001 issue on Evaluating Continuing Education Providers). Invest your time in checking out ce providers and their courses. Yet, there may be times when you are dissatisfied with a course, despite all your research. My motto is that whenever possible, talk directly to the person who can do something about the problem which in this situation is the ce provider.
In subsequent issues we will explore what constitutes a good distance-learning course, ce administration/tracking, and how to prepare yourself before attending a class. Please feel free to contact me with questions or suggestions.