February 12, 2008

Open letter to UCU

Open letter to University and College Union.

We would like to bring to your attention the tragic issue of entrenched workplace bullying in higher education, and we would like to have your comments, suggestions and proposed strategies to deal with this. We are making some suggestions and comments below but ultimately we want to hear your opinions on the matter.

Right now most - if not all - HEIs have in place and are required to have in place anti-bullying policies. These exist on paper, but - as evidenced in numerous cases (Sheffield Hallam University, Leeds Metropolitan, Birmingham's School of Health Sciences), plus our own UCU survey, the problems persist. Quote from recent UCU survey:

'...An astonishing 82% said their institution had a management culture which 'actively contributed to stress' (87% in colleges, 80% in universities). 27% thought their management 'acknowledged the causes of stress' but only 15% thought their management 'sought to address the causes...'

Some rough figures: It is estimated that 14-16% of the British workforce experiences workplace bullying. In a union with a membership of over 100.000, this translates to over 14.000 members.

It appears that there are few, if any, 'formal' evaluations of bullying intervention programmes. For example, the recent HSE Research Report 024 reviewing supporting knowledge for stress management standards (Rick et al, 2002) found no studies examining evidence on interventions to reduce the bullying/harassment stressor.

In our opinion, it is far more productive for our union to intervene before disciplinary decisions are imposed on academics and other staff, before bullied staff loose their jobs under tragic circumstances. It is far more productive for a truly independent body, external body to assess if the university (employer) has indeed followed the right procedures before reaching a decision. This needs to happen before a decision is imposed and not after. The problem with formal grievance/discipline procedures, from the point of view of statistical monitoring, is that they come at the end of a long chain of actions and decisions and are therefore rare.

Usually, any mediation offered by the employer can be used / is used as another forum for power games where the target (victim) experiences the ultimate bullying and usually leaves with an exit package, a confidentiality clause and wrecked health. Internal grievance procedures never work in favour of the victims.

The 2005 Survey of HR Professionals: Which of the following factors impair your organisation's ability to deal effectively with bullying?

Unwillingness to acknowledge a problem by management - 74.4%
Prevailing management style - 70.4%
Lack of training in how to deal with bullying - 45.4%
Lack of cooperation from management - 44.4%
Inadequate procedures - 30.2%

In random order, some of the challenges we face, are:

• Failure of some employers/managers to fully implement ACAS guidelines, and in particular the right to call upon witnesses, to have representation, to have access to accurate records of all hearings. Yes, the Employment Tribunals can decide on this but does it have to always go that far? Are there no other options?

• Failure of some employers to have appropriate internal procedures, embedded with principles of natural justice. How many universities have a record of resolving employment disputes through negotiations and a truck record to prove so?

• Colleagues who are afraid to speak up for fear that they may suffer various forms of penalties. So the victim is often left without wtinesses. Which colleague will openly support the victim of bullying and become a witness against senior managers?

• HR and personnel departments caught in the dilemma between their professional training and professionalism, versus possible management 'pressures' to go along with the prevailing and obviously wrong groupthink.

• A noted lack of expert union reps in workplace bullying backed up by union active policy, strategy, negotiation, and legal action. There is a web page online from a network support group, and a legal/counseling help line that union members can phone, but the issue seems to be the lack of satisfactory results in some well document cases. The available help from the network support group, seems to come too late in the process.

• Funding and quality control bodies should somehow engage in the process of contributing to the implementation and appropriate application of internal grievance and disciplinary procedures. They should/can consider what is happening with workplace bullying, for this has effects on how the general workplace functions or dysfunctions. Yes, we know universities are independent bodies. True, but this is where the collective energies of multiple partners at all levels have to come into this, and the union is only one of them. In fact, the union could lead such a campaign and perhaps attempt to unite all the players in some kind of common cause.

Yes, we do have a new booklet that is well written, BUT the issue remains 'policing' and monitoring and from what we know, universities are not always good at policing their own. An independent party is indeed needed, an external party, even an ombudsman, something, anything… for there are far too many instances when universities when left on their own have not always done the right thing… (ACAS, internal procedures, discrimination, victimisation, racism etc)

TUC, Andrea Adams Trust, and other organisations are working/have worked on a number of projects – policing remains the issue, the gap, the weakness. We feel that our union could be more proactive on this issue and at least advocate for this. This is perhaps one of the central challenges. Does 'independence' mean lack of accountability and transparency on issues of workplace bullying?

The reply from HEFCE is/was that universities are accountable to their own governing bodies. Well, one wonders how cozy these relationships may become after some time. There is a voluntary code of practice for governors, but how many of us know about it or have read it? How many governors have been challenged successfully?

So, who has responsibility for this mess? So far, we have failed to pinpoint a single agent for change. That would be too easy. A collective and coordinated effort of multiple players is needed. We have a long way to go. We would like to know if our union will play a leading role in this or will remain a passive observer offering well-written booklets and support after the events.

It would be good to hear/read from all of you your thoughts and your suggestions on how to tackle workplace bullying in academia.

Louise Michel


Anonymous said...

I would hope that UCU respond to this letter.

I have not had the energy to tackle the issues that have arisen when UCU were supposed to be supporting me...

It is exhausting to battle on alone...

My university continually remind me that I can have a UCU rep at meetings...

In whose interest would it be for a UCU rep to come with me....

....sadly... not mine I feel if past incidents are anything to go by...

..this does not mean that individuals within UCU are not supportive... some are...

I was once very well supported by a senior UCU rep

... just as they were leaving UCU....

Aphra Behn

Stephen Frenkel said...

This is obviously a terribly frustrating situation. Delayed response, inaction and fear of retaliation are all symptoms of a challenged system.

Has the union or HEI's themselves considered pursuing ombuds services? Ombuds are confidential parties, outside of the organizational hierarchy, with a fully confidential open door policy. Ombuds services provide several advantages to all parties including:

1) Providing a confidential, non-reporting avenue for complaints and grievances. Employees can approach the ombuds without fear of being reported, labeled or retaliated upon. The ombuds can help think through an action plan, as well as the benefits / consequences of those actions and can help employees determine how to best address their issues before they get out of control. Since an ombuds doesn't have to report or file grievances, the process is fully confidential until the party decides to take further action.

2) Ombuds report to management on trends and repeat issues so that organizational structure can be addressed and chronic problems can be rectified.

For more information about ombuds services, please contact Stephen Frenkel, Director of Negotiation Programs at MWI at +1-800-348-4888 x24 or at sfrenkel@mwi.org.