October 23, 2015

Bullying of staff in regional universities is a serious problem that needs addressing - Australia

A study of more than 22,000 university staff shows that academics in regional universities were more likely to experience bullying compared to those at other types of universities.

The survey, which looked at working life in 19 different universities across Australia, was set up to test whether the anecdotal complaints of colleagues at regional universities was anything more than the traditional complaints of academics about freedom, autonomy and managerialism.
What did the study show?

This was the first study of its kind to look at bullying across a range of Australian universities. Overall, 28 per cent of academics reported being bullied, with 12 per cent saying the bullying they experienced was serious enough to consider taking a formal case.

However, people were reluctant to take action as they felt pursing the matter would only make things worse.

The rate of bullying varied a lot across different types of universities. One third (36 per cent) of academic staff at the four regional universities reporting being bullied, 1.5 times more than in the five Group of Eight — the most prestigious — universities.

Disturbingly, 42 per cent of staff at one regional university said they had been bullied. Academics reported being publicly humiliated, excluded, intimidated and discriminated against.

Given the well-documented impact of bullying on physical and emotional well-being, these figures are shocking.

The institutional effects are also worrying. Workplace bullying damages productivity and reputation and can be seriously costly to universities.

Work-related harassment and/or workplace bullying has a direct cost of around $18,000 per claim, according to Safe Work Australia — and this is without considering the indirect costs to productivity and staff turnover.

Given the recent changes in legislation, which requires employers to demonstrate they have been proactive in addressing workplace health and safety issues, it's critical to understand what might be contributing to these toxic work places.

Toxic work environments

The research showed that Aboriginal Australians, people from ethnic minority groups, women, and those with family commitments were more likely to be bullied.

Evidence of nepotism was also evident, with individuals who were appointed by a competitive process reporting more harassment than those who weren't. And this was more common in regional universities.

Health and safety regulations require senior management to act to reduce workplace health hazards. But it's likely that at least some senior managers of these institutions are modelling and enabling the bullying and harassment reported in this survey, without senior level support, a culture of bullying would not thrive.

How to change this culture of bullying

Changing a culture that propagates bullying and harassment, even with a determined cross-organisation effort, is a long-term endeavour.

Using guidance from Safe Work Australia on how to prevent and manage bullying in the workplace, going forward, universities need to:
  • Set the standard for appropriate behaviour — Senior management need to set and enforce clear standards of behaviour through a code of conduct or a workplace policy that outlines what is and is not appropriate behaviour. They also need to state what action will be taken to deal with unacceptable behaviour. Unfortunately, many university policies currently require the victim to make a complaint to the probable bully as a first step.
  • Develop positive workplace relationships — Universities need to promote positive leadership styles by providing training for managers and supervisors on communicating effectively in difficult situations, including how to engage workers in decision-making "(which the survey showed has decreased over recent years in regional universities), and providing constructive feedback.
  • Implement proper reporting procedures — A victim needs to know there is a reporting process that protects them and will be acted on. Unfortunately, fear of victimisation is the most common reason given for not reporting bullying in the study.
  • Make sure reporting systems are confidential — Using systems to provide confidential anonymous information on workplace behaviour, such as university surveys, like this one in the US called The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education program, are easy to implement and safe for victims.


Anonymous said...

Ozzie unis and colleges seem to have their own "mr and mrs Kim".....this is present in the taft sector too......college politics can be brutal in australia

Anonymous said...


Hi B/A, this may interest you - bullying at ANU.

Robina Cosser

Anonymous said...

I agree with the sentiment, but I don't think the suggestions about how to change the culture of bullying will work because senior management don't want to set an appropriate standard or create a positive workplace culture.

Senior university managers have inordinate amounts of power over their staff. They are also not very competent in teaching, research or administration (the core business of universities) because they tend to rise to powerful positions through patronage and nepotism. The combination of lack of competence and extraordinary power with no effective oversight is a great predictor of workplace bullying.

Senior university academics are therefore generally bullies who don't want to stop bullying because a) bullying is actually effective in increasing productivity from terrorised staff, which makes the bully look competent according to metrics, and b) bullying gives bullies a buzz.

Bullying is a phenomenon akin to substance abuse: the drug makes addict feel good in the short term. Until problems resulting from taking the substance outweigh the benefits, an addict will keep taking the drug.

The only way that university bullies will stop is when their behaviour causes them more pain than pleasure. While universities are self-regulating and maintain their too close relationships with Federal and State politicians, this will never happen. Only a Royal Commission into corruption at universities, probably initiated by the inevitable exodus of international and domestic students, can stop this Pavlov's dog from salivating.

If university bullies and senior executives were like any other addict, there would be a 12 step program for them. However, they are not like any other addict: they get nothing but pleasure and rewards from enacting harm to other human beings. The financial cost doesn't affect them personally at all. They are not personally paying salaries and staff turnover costs, so their drug of choice is provided for free by the taxpayer.

Unknown said...

Perhaps academic staff project this bullying onto students in kind. The bullying I have experienced by lecturers had been profound. One lecturer told me I would not find success as a student if I didn't make an effort to adopt post modern perspectives. If I ask a Marxist type question, I am told told I'm bringing the class off track. Lecturers don't let students even discuss unapproved ideas like 'virtue ethics' or 'political economy'.1984 isn't as oppressive as discussing incendiary ideas at 2nd and 3rd tier university's