January 06, 2007

Dignity at Work - A Good Practice Guide for Higher Education Institutions on Dealing with Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace

...One of the primary purposes of the project was to promote dignity at work for all staff within higher education. The project aimed to provide practical guidance on the steps that can be taken to encourage successful working relationships between staff and to work towards the elimination of bullying and harassment in the workplace.

This guidance pack has been produced to assist Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the development of their own policies, practices and support mechanisms to promote dignity at work, using examples of good practice from other universities and colleges…

Key Features of a Model Policy on Bullying and Harassment:

• Commitment from Senior Management;
• Acceptance that bullying is an organisational issue;
• A statement that bullying is unacceptable and will not be tolerated;
• Clear definitions of unacceptable behaviour;
• Legal implications for organisations and individuals;
• A statement that bullying may be treated as a disciplinary offence, and it should be listed as a misconduct and gross misconduct in the disciplinary procedure;
• Steps to assess and prevent bullying;
• Mechanism for third party complaints;
• Mechanism for initiation of the policy without a complainant;
• Duties of Heads of Department/Faculty/Services and supervisors;
• Confidentiality for complainants when they report bullying;
• Procedures to protect complainants from victimisation;
• Clear complaints procedures, separate from the normal grievance procedure;
• Availability of ‘confidential advisers’ and where to contact them;
• Informal complaints procedure;
• Formal complaints procedure;
• Procedure for investigating complaints;
• Information and training about bullying/harassment and the policy;
• Repair mechanisms/options outlined;
• Access to support and counselling;
• Review, monitoring and evaluation.

Other important considerations:

• Is it jointly agreed by the employer and recognised trade unions?
• Does it cover everyone?
• Is it effectively implemented?
• How will you measure progress?

Confidential advisers

It is recognised that individuals suffering from harassment or bullying may feel too embarrassed to make a complaint, may worry that they will not be taken seriously or fear that they might be blamed for provoking the incident or incidents. Experiencing harassment or bullying as well as making a complaint can cause much distress. It can also be extremely distressing to be accused of harassment or bullying. For this purpose [ ] wishes to appoint confidential advisers to assist the individual employee and provide confidential support in cases of harassment - whether the employee is making a complaint, being accused of harassment or a witness to it.


In order to investigate complaints of harassment effectively, [ ] will appoint a number of employees who will receive specialist training as investigators. The training will be designed to ensure that they are provided with the range of skills necessary to conduct, document and complete investigations in a fair and thorough manner.

The role of the investigators is to:

• ensure that investigations are carried out promptly and that time scales for resolution are adhered to;
• ensure that all parties are communicated with and kept informed of progress as appropriate;
• protect the rights of both the complainant and complained-of and ensure that they are able to exercise their right to trade union representation throughout the process;
• clearly define the rights and responsibilities of witnesses;
• ensure that complainant and witnesses are provided with a fair opportunity to give their full version of events;
• ensure that details of the complaint are clearly outlined and that the complained-of gets a fair opportunity to answer the charges and identify witnesses;
• ensure that the commitment to confidentiality and non-disclosure of information ruling is evident during the investigation and after its completion;
• use judgement to ensure that all relevant facts and information are sought;
• be responsible for collecting all available evidence in a thorough manner;
• ensure that accurate note-taking and record keeping is carried out;
• draw as complete a picture of events as possible;
• objectively reach an informed conclusion as to whether the complaint is substantiated or not;
• provide the Designated Officer with a detailed report and appropriate recommendations…

Some of the staff who are likely to benefit from training include the following:

• Line managers, who need to understand the legal obligations of the institution as well as their potential personal liability), as well as understanding how to implement the Dignity at Work Policy and procedures;
• Senior managers and members of the Governing Body, who also need to appreciate the impact of their decision making and behaviour on the culture of the organisation;
• Professional HR staff, who need to understand how to effectively implement the Dignity at Work Policy, and how it interacts with the institution’s existing disciplinary and grievance procedures;
• Trade union representatives, who will be the first point of contact for a significant number of staff in relation to dignity at work issues;
• Harassment Advisers, who need to be fully trained to effectively support complainants and alleged harassers;
• Members of the investigation panel, who will consider any cases;
• Specific groups of staff who may have a particular need to understand how your policies and procedures work, such as front line staff (security, accommodation office, etc.)…

Monitoring and Evaluation

It is essential to give some consideration to how you intend to monitor and evaluate any dignity at work initiatives you wish to introduce. It is important to involve the staff unions (for both academic and support staff) in the development of the survey, and to work with them in the analysis and action planning that will/may arise from the findings. You will not be able to demonstrate whether or not the steps you have taken to tackle bullying and harassment have been successful if you have no evidence to support this view.

Monitoring is important to provide basic data on the numbers of users of the service, broken down into various categories (e.g. harassment of lesbians and gay men, sexual and/or racial harassment, etc). This will enable you to identify any particular patterns of complaints, and thus alert you to areas on which you need to concentrate additional attention and/or resources. It will also enable you to identify what resolutions were achieved in each case and those where complainants decided not to proceed with formal complaints...

Bullying vs Firm Management

Many managers are concerned about the possibility of being accused of bullying when they are required to discipline staff or deal with poor performance. This is not only unhelpful for the manager concerned, it may lead to a situation whereby staff are allowed to behave in ways which is detrimental not only to the organisation but for other individuals working within the manager’s area of responsibility. Bullying is frequently prevalent where the management style is autocratic and overbearing but may equally be a feature of departments where the management style is weak and laissez-faire.

The key principles for managers are to treat staff fairly, communicate effectively and use appropriate measures to deal with those who are struggling to deliver to target. If you adopt the following principles, you are very unlikely to be accused of bullying. If you are unfortunate enough to be in this position, you can be confident that you can defend your actions and your approach if you have acted appropriately and fairly at all times.

• Remember that managing other people’s performance is a legitimate part of your job, and there will be times when you are required to take unpopular decisions. You should however appreciate that being told you are not performing well is stressful for the member of staff and do this as tactfully and sympathetically as possible.

• Address any issues in the appropriate way. You should not lose your temper or gossip about your staff’s shortcomings behind their back, but discuss each specific problem in turn, before agreeing a course of action.

• Be a good listener. Make sure that your staff understand and agree with what you discuss – it needs to be a two-way conversation, not a monologue. If staff have personal issues that are affecting their work, take an interest and make a genuine effort to help them cope. Recent research suggests a link with work-related stress for staff that feel they are without a voice, or their views are not heard.

• Praise your staff as often as you can – it is very easy for managers to fall into a pattern of relating to staff in a generally negative way. If this happens, staff will regard an invitation to your office as a cause for concern, when it can just as easily be an opportunity for a positive interaction. Motivating staff is a key feature to promoting a healthy and productive culture in the workplace and thus is a primary management responsibility. People respond to positive attention much more readily than to criticism, so when you do have an unfavourable comment to make, try to use the “positive sandwich” approach whereby you start and end with something good and put the criticisms in the middle.

• Keep communication channels open. Ask yourself if your manner is as approachable as it could be and if not, what you can do to improve it. It should go without saying that if you have a sensitive issue to address that you should take the member of staff aside and do it in private.

• Be fair and avoid favouritism. Do not allow yourself or other staff to take credit for someone else’s work.

• Make sure all members of the team are included when you organise events. This should include social activities.

• Try hard not to be moody or temperamental. One of the most difficult types of behaviour to deal with for staff is that of a manager who has extreme mood swings. If you are feeling fragile, upset or simply having a bad day, don’t be afraid to let people know. A self deprecating comment is much more likely to win you sympathy and understanding than losing your temper over a trivial matter for no apparent reason.

• Finally – don’t forget that everyone makes mistakes and you are no exception. No-one is perfect, so if you do get it wrong, don’t be afraid to say so. An acknowledgement and an apology are often all that are needed if you have approached an issue in the wrong way or at the wrong time or place. If you are prepared to acknowledge your mistakes, it will make it easier for your staff to do so too. This will help to establish a culture that avoids blame when things go wrong, and in which everyone pulls together with a focus on putting things right rather than finding scapegoats…

Conducting Investigations

The way in which any investigation is conducted will be a key element in the success of your dignity at work strategy – there is no point in introducing a comprehensive policy, training a network of harassment advisers and communicating widely and successfully if you do not have good, fair and transparent procedures for conducting investigations into complaints. Such investigations are very sensitive and there should be procedures separate from your normal disciplinary and grievance procedures to investigate such complaints, using people who have had specific training in investigating bullying and harassment complaints.

You should bear in mind that many complainants and witnesses will be fearful not simply about the outcome but about any repercussions of making the complaint in the first place and they should be reassured that the institution will protect them and make every effort to deal effectively with the aftermath and minimise trauma after the investigation has taken place and the outcome is known. Therefore you should consider:

• Providing compulsory training for investigators and panel members;

• Ensuring that the investigation is conducted by two people, to gain the maximum benefit from the interviews. If you have investigators who are relatively new, try to team them with someone who has a lot of experience.

• Dealing with complaints in a sensitive, objective manner, respecting the rights of all parties involved;

• Keeping all the participants, including the witnesses, well briefed about the process and ensure that everyone involved is aware of how the findings will be communicated. Ensure that both the accused and the complainant are aware of what information they will receive at the conclusion of the investigation.

• Maintaining confidentiality – this is particularly important in a small institution, where the parties are likely to be well known to many other employees;

• Ensuring that complainants and witnesses are fully protected from victimisation. It is not sufficient to state in your policy that those concerned will be protected – you must have robust systems in place to ensure that this actually happens in the event of an allegation of bullying or harassment.

• Using open questions to elicit the facts of the case and ensure that all questions are as neutral as possible. In particular, try to avoid questions that appear to allocate blame, which will make the respondent overly defensive and will obscure the facts.

• Concluding the proceedings within a reasonable timescale;

• Making every effort to ensure, if possible, that the investigatory team and the panel are balanced in terms of race, gender, etc (this is particularly important in cases where sexual/racial harassment are at issue). Members of the Investigatory team and panels should also include staff from all levels of the institution and represent both support and academic staff.
This guide was published January 2007, by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) and was produced with the collaboration of UCU and UNISON - it is long overdue.

The full copy is available online as a PDF file. Make sure you forward a copy to your HR department, and make sure you remind your investigators about it. Any internal grievance hearing or investigation that is not not following this guide, is likely to be unfair and unjust.

The guide is certainly a good start. What it needs, is 'teeth', i.e. what are the repercussions if a university is not following this good practice guide? In this respect it is incomplete. It is no more satisfactory - if it ever was - that an employee/academic has no other option but to take his/her case to an Employment Tribunal or refuse to commit 'professional suicide'. There has to be independent and impartial monitoring of universities for the can't always be trusted to implement the guide. Good words and nice rhetoric in a booklet are not enough.


Anonymous said...

Is there something similar to this for academics?

"The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education ("OIA") operates an independent student complaints scheme pursuant to the Higher Education Act 2004."

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said...

Sadly the answer is 'NO'.

In many respects this means that students have more rights when pursuing their complaints compared to academic staff.

One would have thought it appropriate for the academic union (UCU) to lobby for such a body.

Anonymous said...

It is helpful to publish examples of good practice because this illustrative material can be offered to those universities who are 'struggling' to develop good practice - there are less positive ways to say this... Modelling is powerful pedagogy.

I will certainly be able to quote from this document in my meeting/s this week.