July 18, 2014

Workplace disputes must be handled better and faster

We all know that bad things sometimes happen in working life. The measure of an institution is not whether any of its staff have ever behaved inappropriately towards colleagues but rather how those involved are treated when problems do arise.

According to information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the sector spent almost £30 million on legal costs and settlements of employment disputes between 2010 and 2013. This represents a catastrophic management failure.

Worryingly, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Quite apart from all the institutions that did not provide figures, there are also major invisible costs, such as all the management hours spent handling disputes, the lost productivity of those directly involved and the cost of sick leave when the stress gets to be too much. Then there is reputational damage, which occurs even when cases do not hit the headlines as word spreads quickly among academics.

As someone who was recently involved in an employment dispute with my university, what have I learned from the experience and how could universities improve their handling of employment disputes?

Universities have fine policies and procedures on respect and dignity in the workplace, but many simply ignore them in practice. The complainant is too often seen as the problem, and fair play is sacrificed to local expediency.

Since most senior academics gain positions of responsibility based on scholarly rather than managerial achievements, they may lack experience in handling these situations and may be unfamiliar with the relevant law. In these cases, processes must be overseen by human resource managers. HR staff and academics investigating a dispute must be properly trained. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service offers free online training courses in fair investigation process. This training should be mandatory.

A vital aspect of dispute resolution is to act early and firmly. It is too easy to initially dismiss claims of bullying and harassment as personality clashes, banter or even robust management style. But even relatively short delays of a week or two in acting could lead to situations escalating out of control.
To assure complainants that their concerns are being taken seriously, the timescales for investigation and action should be spelled out from the outset by HR. Formal grievance policies typically specify that procedures should be completed within a month, so informal grievances might reasonably be expected to be dealt with within two weeks.

If such a timetable is not forthcoming, complainants might consider defining their own (with reference to institutional policies) and supplying it to HR. Employment tribunal deadlines are strictly enforced, and employees may lose their legal rights if they wait until HR processes are completed – a common (and often successful) legal strategy for employers.

Another problem is that HR staff may feel powerless to influence the management of individual cases – especially those involving “REF megastars” whom institutions want to keep on side. High-level support and, perhaps, assertiveness training may be needed to deal with bombastic senior academics with local political agendas and alliances.

In all disputes, the procedures to be used should be clearly defined and their purpose made clear. Particularly inappropriate are ad hoc processes that fail to provide structure and that may allow a cavalier attitude towards evidence-gathering and transparency yet produce a written outcome with profound implications against which – worst of all – there is no opportunity to appeal. Such ad hoc procedures may be particularly dangerous in cases of bullying and harassment because complaints against serial offenders frequently result in a storm of retaliatory counter-allegations.

Throughout, it is essential that detailed records, including agreed meeting notes, are kept. In 2013, a precedent was set in a judgment by the Employment Appeal Tribunal allowing covert recording of meetings to be used in employment tribunal cases. Some universities have rushed through regulations to make the recording of HR procedures by employees a disciplinary offence. But institutions with nothing to hide may consider the opposite approach. Official recordings are easy and cheap to arrange and eliminate time-consuming and inaccurate note-taking and subsequent difficulties in agreeing minutes.

As bullying and harassment may particularly affect staff with protected characteristics such as disability, minority ethnic origin or sexual orientation, institutions should consider creating a central unit with staff expert in these issues, free from local politics. More support in disputes involving senior managers or in especially complex cases may be obtained from external bodies such as Acas, the Equality Challenge Unit or disability advocacy specialists.

Monitoring and audit are essential. A simple tick-sheet, with spaces for dates and comments, should be supplied to all parties at the start of disputes to ensure the consistent application of best practice. The master copy should ideally be held by HR, and an anonymised version would present an obvious avenue for performance audits of institutions’ dispute resolution practices – just as we audit so many other areas of modern university life.

UK universities avowedly aim for excellence in teaching and research. Let’s extend that aspiration across all areas of our work, saving money in the process and helping academics and students to thrive.

From: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/workplace-disputes-must-be-handled-better-and-faster/2014523.article

July 01, 2014

Bullying in Academia

If you get it right, a career in academia offers all sorts of advantages:

- immense autonomy on how you manage your time;
- the opportunity to work on precisely the topics that stimulate you intellectually;
- the opportunity to travel to weird and wonderful places, and to work collaboratively with scholars and others from fascinating backgrounds;
- the opportunity to work with students who stretch your mind and inspire you.

Put simply, if your luck is in, you can be paid to read and talk about the things that interest you. There are, of course, many drawbacks to an academic career. The salaries are not always appealing. A recent Financial Times article called academics ‘cling ons’ – desperately trying to cling onto their middle class status as their salaries are eroded in comparison with other professions. There is also the drudgery associated with work (namely marking) and the creeping and insidious way in which bureaucrats and spreadsheets have taken over universities to the detriment of teaching, research, and ideas. In general though, it can be an enviable career.

One major drawback though, and one that is not discussed as often as it should be, is bullying. This usually takes the form of senior academics wielding power over their more junior colleagues. Most universities have state-of-the-art anti-bullying charters, but bullying still goes on. In fact, it is often hardwired into the organization and culture of universities.

The key to the whole issue is power. Usually, junior academics are in highly dependent positions. They need to stay ‘on side’ with their senior colleagues in order to remain in a job, or to progress in terms of promotion or access to resources. I can talk with some experience on this subject because I was worked in a department where bullying was rife (I am happy to say that it was not St Andrews or the University of Ulster). Some senior academics in the department had their own fiefdoms and academic staff who they saw not as colleagues, but as chattel. The University management saw the senior academics as ‘successful’ as they variously brought in money or were prominent in their research fields. So the University had little incentive to rock the boat by investigating claims of bullying. The Head of Department was weak. And, most of all, the victims of the bullying were reliant on the senior academics to stay in a job, earn promotion or avoid being ‘punished’ by teaching and administrative loads that would render them research inactive.

The bullying was abetted by a culture of secrecy in which decisions were taken among cliques. Discussion, even at Departmental meetings, was frowned upon. The bullies usually had been at the University for well over a decade and so knew everyone in the senior administration. As a result, the bullied felt that their chances of successfully taking a formal case against the bullies were slim. The bullies also had a technique of presenting themselves as the voice of the University, implying that their outlook was in accordance with that of the University. The cards were heavily stacked against the bullied.

The single biggest regret in my career (so far) is that I did not directly take on the bullies. I was not the direct victim of bullying but I saw it go on to colleagues. The psychological and self-esteem costs to the bullied were enormous. Everyone knew about it, and it was discussed in hushed tones. To my shame, I did not intervene. I too was trapped in a situation in which I wanted promotion and other ‘favours’ – crumbs that would be dropped from the table of the bullies. As I look back, I see that the bullies were incredibly vain and insecure individuals who used the bullying as a way of feeling in control. Often they were single dimension people, with little going on their lives apart from work.

There are three things that we can do about workplace bullying in universities.

Firstly, we should call bullying by its name. It is not ‘mentorship’, ‘leadership’, ‘the rules of the game’, ‘the way it is’, or ‘that’s just the way XXXX operates, you gotta go with it’. It is bullying. There are plenty of excellent mentors out there who do not resort to silly mind games and who are generous enough to encourage rather than thwart more junior colleagues.

Second, we should talk about bullying much more often. Weirdly, there is a stigma attached to being bullied. A chief aim in academia is to maximize one’s own autonomy over research agendas, time and budgets. To be seen as bullied is to be seen as being ‘a loser’ – as someone incapable of maximizing autonomy.

Thirdly, we need to think seriously about the working cultures that are being developed. Whether it is the tenure-track system in the US or the research census in the UK, we are creating and validating systems that allow powerholders to flex power over junior colleagues. Often these are deeply flawed individuals who are in positions of power not because of their people skills, but because they were good at playing the game. Universities need to seriously look at their management processes that reward managers of budgets or stewards of arcane university rules but penalize good managers of people.

Bullying often occurs at a key moment of the junior academic’s career. It is precisely the post-PhD time that they should be flourishing, pursuing their own ideas and cutting a path through innovative publication and research. Instead, bullying (whether directly towards them or indirectly occurring to others) encourages conformity, silence, obedience and a lack of creativity.

From: http://rogermacginty.com/2014/03/17/bullying-in-academia/