Just when you think the ISO 9001 certification bodies (CBs) have come up with every possible way to increase distrust and suspicion, they come up with a new one.
You may recall our prior reporting on the scandal involving Qatar Quality Plus, a Doha-based ISO 9001 consulting company operated by a husband and wife team who happen to also simultaneously work as Gulf region directors of Quality Austria. A third Qatar Quality Plus employee was later found simultaneously working for Quality Austria. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Quality Austria issued an ISO 9001 certificate to its own employees, certifying Qatar Quality Plus. Then it began issuing certificates to Qatar Quality Plus’ clients, as well, in a scandal that goes back nearly a decade.
These arrangements are prohibited under ISO 17021, the rules under which Quality Austria must operate to remain accredited.
Thanks to the ISO Whistleblower Program, the scam was uncovered and Oxebridge filed a formal complaint with Quality Austria. We had high hopes for this one, since Quality Austria’s initial response was polite and sober, as opposed to the usual ranting rage we get from CBs when they first get hit with a complaint.
Quality Austria performed its complaints processing in silence, which is fine, and I didn’t pester them. A few months later, however, and it appears that Quality Austria is joining its CB colleagues in coming up with ways to be deceptive and cowardly after all.
Quality Austria’s Non-Response Response
On October 29th, I received the following resolution email from Quality Austria, announcing their complaint investigation was completed:
Dear Mr Paris,
Thank you for your e-mail.
The result and the description of our action have been transmitted to the Austrian accreditation body Akkreditierung Austria as well as IQNet.
Friedrich Khuen and Eckehard Bauer
That’s it. Quality Austria announces they have completed their work, but won’t reveal what they found, or what they did about it. To give this a sheen of validity, they provide some links to German-language Austrian laws.
(Call for help: if any O-Fans can read German, take a look at those links and see what Quality Austria is quoting.)
But there’s a problem, of course. ISO 17021’s rules on complaints handling require the CB to update the complainant (in this case, Oxebridge) “with progress reports and the result of the complaint.” It’s likely Quality Austria is taking an extremely narrow reading of this clause and pretending that they have met this rule by simply announcing the complaint was closed, with that being sufficient to count as a “result.” I would argue this is wholly inadequate, but let’s give them a pass on that for now.
But ISO 17021 also allows a complainant to appeal a decision or action taken by the CB. In fact, an entire clause (9.7) is dedicated to this concept. By denying Oxebridge even a vague description of the result, Quality Austria is violating this clause, making things even worse for them. I can’t know if what they did was adequate, so I can’t know if an appeal is warranted.
Also, ISO 17021 requires that “the certification body shall determine, together with the certified client and the complainant, whether and, if so to what extent, the subject of the complaint and its resolution shall be made public.” In this case, Quality Austria is making that determination on its own, without involving the complainant (Oxebridge), resulting in another violation of the accreditation rules.
Finally, there’s clause 4.7 of ISO 17021, called “Responsiveness to Complaints” (emphasis added):
Parties that rely on certification expect to have complaints investigated and, if these are found to be valid, should have confidence that these complaints will be appropriately addressed and that a reasonable effort will be made by the certification body to resolve them. Effective responsiveness to complaints is an important means of protection for the certification body, its clients and other users of certification against errors, omissions or unreasonable behavior. Confidence in certification activities is safeguarded when complaints are processed appropriately.
NOTE An appropriate balance between the principles of openness and confidentiality, including responsiveness to complaints, is necessary in order to demonstrate integrity and credibility to all users of certification.
So what did Quality Austria actually do in response to this complaint? We can’t be sure, but some troubling facts are showing up.
Guessing on Actions Taken
First, the Qatar Quality Plus website has been entirely shut down. There’s a number of possible reasons for this. If Quality Austria forced Qatar Quality Plus to shut down, in order for the two regional directors to keep their jobs at Quality Austria, that’s troubling. It means that Quality Austria has not addressed the root cause of its systems allowing certification to companies owned and connected to its own staff, but instead it felt the root cause was that Qatar Quality Plus was just being too overt about it.
Another reason, a bit darker, is that Qatar Quality Plus — whether under pressure from Quality Austria or not — shut its site down in order to hide the evidence. That site had photographs of the Quality Austria staffers receiving ISO 9001 certs from Quality Austria while working for Qatar Quality Plus. It showed evidence of its clients having been certified by Quality Austria, as well as published its own ISO 9001 cert from Quality Austria. That’s all gone now. (I have copies, of course.)
Keep in mind, too, that because a website is shut down doesn’t mean that Qatar Quality Plus is out of business. Their employees are still active on LinkedIn and social media, and they may well be conducting their services under a new name, or under a new website.
Lack of Information = Information
Another interesting point of information is the lack of any announcements on the Quality Austria website. There was no announcement of any closure of the Quality Austria Gulf division, and the two employees are still listed as working for Quality Austria. There were no listed suspensions or withdrawals of any clients in Qatar (the QA website doesn’t apparently notify the public of any suspensions or withdrawals at all), and the Qatar Quality Plus clients who were certified by Quality Austria are still listed as holding active certificates.
With this information we know what didn’t happen: Quality Austria did not suspend the certs for the companies it certified despite the glaring conflict of interest. It didn’t transfer these clients to a new CB, which would have been the best course of action. It didn’t trigger new audits even its own staff (which, again, should have triggered a temporary suspension.) It has upheld the certificates issued to Qatar Quality Plus clients.
Quality Austria does appear to have canceled or let lapse the ISO 9001 certificate it issued to Qatar Quality Plus, however.
Finally, in an even grimmer sign, Quality Austria has apparently cut off communication with Oxebridge on the matter entirely. An email I sent on October 29th to multiple parties at Quality Austria, requesting clarification on the fact that my rights to appeal or escalate the complaint were being denied due to their refusal to provide details on the complaint, went ignored. I sent a refresher email today (November 7), so we will see if they wake up.
It’s likely this will result in an escalation to Quality Austria’s accreditation body, Akkreditierung Austria, alleging improper response to complaints, among other things. But let’s give Quality Austria some more time to dig out of this unfortunate, and entirely self-inflicted, bungle. They may well yet have an entirely acceptable explanation.
About Christopher Paris
Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 30 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001:2015. He reviews wines for the irreverent wine blog, Winepisser.