5 O.S. 1, App. 3 A (Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct)
31 O.S. §§ 1 et seq. (Property exemption from creditors)
43 O.S. § 137.C (Settlement)
56 O.S. § 237.3 (State of Oklahoma as client)
Oklahoma Administrative Code
OAC 340: 2‐28‐22 and 25‐5‐124 ITS (Rules of suggested conduct for staff)
OAC 340: 25‐5‐67 (Privacy)
Often a customer’s first contact with Child Support Services (CSS), and possibly even with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS), is during a personal interview with a CSS staff member. This interview is not only crucial in regard to the professional representation of CSS and DHS, but is also the initial, and most important, opportunity to gather critical information about a child support case.
There are several Quest articles on oral communication that present the CSS staff member with suggestions and techniques that, when practiced, can assist the Child Support Specialist and others in conducting professional, thorough, and successful interviews. The more complete the information gathered at the start of a case, the less work and frustration for all parties involved. Additionally, the CSS staff member will be more successful and satisfied in his/her position.
The material also provides “food for thought” in relation to professional conduct, ethical considerations, and legal concerns. A thorough understanding of these issues is a necessity for every CSS staff member, and directly impacts not only the staff member’s success and satisfaction, but also that of the customer, and ultimately, a child.
Success for interacting with customers in large and small situations usually includes:
- Analyze your customer (audience) and determine your purpose
- Research and collect your information
- Organize your ideas and information
- Add “finishing touches” to the content and structure
- Prepare any supporting visual aids
- Practice your delivery, including interactions and questions and answers
Many frustrating interactions with customers occur because preparation is started with preparing the supporting visual aid. However, without first knowing information about the customer’s needs and wants, the purpose of the interaction, the supporting information, or the content organization, the visual aids will not be effective.
Preparing for Customer Meetings
The oral communication process starts before you meet with the customer. In order to successfully interview a customer, you need to understand your role as a “helping” professional.
Any position held by a CSS staff member is a professional one, and certain attitudes and behaviors are therefore implied. Professional behavior for a member of a helping profession may be defined as responding to others and to situations in a manner appropriate and consistent with one’s professional role, regardless of personal feelings, attitudes, or biases.
DHS has administrative policy outlining rules of suggested conduct for professional staff. CSS staff members should review this policy for information concerning conflict of interest, relationships with customers and with co‐workers, legal reporting requirements, and much more. These policies have been developed to protect the integrity of the organization and the profession. To address an additional dimension of professional conduct, DHS has an employee dress code practice. Also, please review the DHS Quality Service Standards.
Child Support falls within the arena of the helping professions, and also within the scope of law enforcement. Due to the close relationship most CSS staff members have with the District Attorney (DA) and other legal officers, the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct which apply to the legal profession are also applicable to all CSS staff members. These rules, in general, outline the right of the customer to expect competence, diligence, confidentiality, avoidance of conflict of interest, etc. These Rules can be found in 5 O.S. Appendix 3-A (To find the rules within Title 5, scroll down to Appendix 3-A).
The Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) apply to the relationship between the attorney and client, which in this case is the State, not the customer. The customer is the beneficiary of the Rules because as we uphold the Rules we must behave with integrity, which carries over into other relationships. Regarding conflict of interest, it must be remembered any customer may become our adversary in an instant. While we hope for a cooperative relationship as we all try to benefit the child, if the customer resists that effort, we must respectfully oppose them. The customer is not our client.
Every CSS staff member is responsible for safeguarding the privacy of individuals involved in a case and maintaining confidentiality of information provided. Information may be released only to authorized persons for purposes related to child support administration or enforcement, or for purposes of administering any state or federally assisted program providing assistance services. Persons involved are considered the individual(s) applying for CSS services, custodial persons (CPs), noncustodial parents (NCPs), and the relevant children.
In general, when asked to disclose any information concerning a case, follow basic rules:
- Verify the identity of the person requesting information.
- Determine what information the person is authorized to receive.
- Follow policies and procedures set forth in the referenced statutes and regulations for release of information.
- If unsure, consult a supervisor before disclosing information.
Preparation is a vital step in conducting a thorough, successful interview. If you plan the interview in advance, you will be in better control of the process and much more likely to get information necessary to help the customer. Suggestions to use while preparing for a customer interview include:
- Time: Set a time frame for the interview that will allow objectives to be accomplished.
- Focus: Clear your mind and work area. This provides focus, and also limits distractions for the customer.
- Review: Relevant materials (e.g., the case file, legal documents).
- Resources: Have necessary forms and other resources accessible.
- Anticipate customer needs as much as possible.
- Make a list of information needed from the customer.
- Reduce interruptions to the greatest extent possible.
- Perform an attitude check. Begin thinking in an empathetic frame of mind.
Appointments are normally requested by the customer because a question has arisen or detailed status information on the child support case is needed. When setting the date and time for the appointment, ask the customer what type of information is requested or needed so you can be prepared. Make sure you have all the necessary documentation to answer questions.
Unfortunately, there are times when the customer has certain questions when the appointment is set and has a different set of questions when the appointment is conducted. If you do not have the information available, tell the customer it is not available and when you expect to have the information available.
For example, the CP requested an appointment to ask questions about an upcoming hearing concerning a license revocation action filed against the NCP. During the appointment, the CP requests detailed information about the amount of child support owed the State of Oklahoma versus the amount of child support owed her. You do not have that information available and will need to turn the case file over to another employee in the office to calculate the amounts.
- Explain to the CP you will need time to obtain the information and will contact her.
- Make sure you do not promise a date for follow‐up information if you do not know when it will be available. Only promise what you can deliver.
- If you do not have the information, avoid giving the customer the impression you do.
Follow this suggested procedure to prepare for appointments.
- Outline topics for discussion. Make a list of topics the customer wants to discuss and topics you need to address. Make notes of how you plan to handle the particular item and what information you need to gather.
- Identify your goals for the appointment. Have a clear idea of the topics that need to be discussed and also what you want to accomplish during the appointment. Think of the appointment as an opportunity to accomplish a positive action for the case.
- Organize the case file. Make sure all information identified in your outline is contained in the file and that you can easily find it. Attach tabs to important documents (e.g., court orders, income information, affidavits of payments, etc.).
- Exhibits. Make sure any exhibits (e.g., arrears computations, child support guidelines calculations, etc.) are understandable to a layperson. Avoid labels on exhibits that are cryptic or contain child support jargon. Consider developing a cover sheet providing explanations of legal documents or exhibits in simple terms.
Barriers to Communication
One of the most common barriers to communication involves how you present your message. Avoid complaining about factors affecting your job such as the slowness of the computers or your dislike of the judge hearing the case. Do not explain that you are unprepared. The customer will not have any confidence in the accuracy of your information. Avoid using offensive language or making prejudicial statements. Your personal opinion concerning the life choices made by the customer are not relevant.
“Uh, I don’t know why we are meeting today. There is nothing we can do to change the amount of the child support order. Your real caseworker is on vacation and stuck me with meeting with you today and didn’t tell me anything about your case.”
“Thank you for meeting with me today. Ms. Smith is unavailable today but she wanted me to obtain your information as quickly as possible to be able to review your case for any actions we can take.”
Again, only promise what you can deliver. If you promise something unreasonable today, any future interactions you have with that customer will be clouded by mistrust.
In other Quest articles on Oral Communication, we address the following information:
- Custodial Person Interviews
- Non-Custodial Parent and Third Party Interviews
- Body Language, Vocal Patterns and Word Choice in Interviews or Conferences
- Handling Questions and Your Answers Effectively
- Telephonic Communications Tips
- Negotiation Skills for Settlement Conferences
- Difficult Customers and Concluding the Interview or Conference