December 21, 2023

Fifth of UK research staff ‘bullied in past two years’...

One in five research staff in UK universities have faced bullying or harassment in the past two years, a major survey has found.

According to the latest annual Culture, Employment and Development of Academic Researchers Survey (Cedars), which collected responses from 9,351 researchers from 66 institutions, some 21 per cent of respondents said they had been bullied or harassed recently – a level that rose to 24 per cent among female researchers who identified as mid-career or senior staff, compared with 18 per cent for their male counterparts.

Women are also less likely to report incidents of bullying or harassment, with 59 per cent saying they would feel comfortable doing so compared with 70 per cent of men, according to the survey carried out by Vitae, part of the Careers Research & Advisory Centre (Crac).

Female staff are less likely to trust the investigatory process regarding bullying, with 45 per cent stating they did not trust or did not know whether to trust formal procedures on bullying compared with 37 per cent of men.

The publication of the Cedars data on 7 September comes amid increased discussion about the importance of having a healthy research culture in UK universities, with Research England and the other funding councils for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland intending to increase the weighting of research environment in the REF 2028 to the same level as impact – 25 per cent.

With proposals to streamline how research environment is assessed also under consultation, some have suggested the Cedars survey data or its approach to assessing research culture could even be used to compare different institutions for the purposes of awarding some £2 billion annually in block grant research funding. 

According to the latest data from Cedars, there is considerable scepticism about the fairness and transparency of hiring and promotion of research staff, with just 33 per cent of early-career researchers agreeing that promotions at their institution were made on merit. For those who identified as mid-career or senior researchers, that proportion rose to 44 per cent.

Only about half of research staff (48 per cent) said they felt valued for their contributions to their institutions, with even higher levels of established researchers saying they were not valued for peer review (73 per cent) or management duties (56 per cent). About a third (30 per cent) said they did not feel valued for their teaching.

On research integrity, 69 per cent of respondents said they believed their institutions promoted the highest level of research integrity, and less than 10 per cent said they felt pressurised into compromising research standards or integrity. Around two-thirds said they felt comfortable reporting incidents of misconduct, with female staff feeling less comfortable than male staff at all career levels.

November 27, 2023

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November 24, 2023

UNESCO: Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel

• Institutional accountability

(h) ensuring that higher education personnel are not impeded in their work in the classroom or in their research capacity by violence, intimidation or harassment;

(k) the creation, through the collegial process and/or through negotiation with organizations representing higher-education teaching personnel, consistent with the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech, of statements or codes of ethics to guide higher education personnel in their teaching, scholarship, research and extension work;

• Rights and freedoms of higher-education teaching personnel

26. Higher-education teaching personnel, like all other groups and individuals, should enjoy those internationally recognized civil, political, social and cultural rights applicable to all citizens. Therefore, all higher-education teaching personnel should enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association as well as the right to liberty and security of the person and liberty of movement. They should not be hindered or impeded in exercising their civil rights as citizens, including the right to contribute to social change through freely expressing their opinion of state policies and of policies affecting higher education. They should not suffer any penalties simply because of the exercise of such rights. Higher-education teaching personnel should not be subject to arbitrary arrest or detention, nor to torture, nor to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In cases of gross violation of their rights, higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to appeal to the relevant national, regional or international bodies such as the agencies of the United Nations, and organizations representing higher-education teaching personnel should extend full support in such cases.

28. Higher-education teaching personnel have the right to teach without any interference, subject to accepted professional principles including professional responsibility and intellectual rigour with regard to standards and methods of teaching. Higher-education teaching personnel should not be forced to instruct against their own best knowledge and conscience or be forced to use curricula and methods contrary to national and international human rights standards. Higher education teaching personnel should play a significant role in determining the curriculum.

29. Higher-education teaching personnel have a right to carry out research work without any interference, or any suppression, in accordance with their professional responsibility and subject to nationally and internationally recognized professional principles of intellectual rigour, scientific inquiry and research ethics. They should also have the right to publish and communicate the conclusions of the research of which they are authors or co-authors, as stated in paragraph 12 of this Recommendation.

30. Higher-education teaching personnel have a right to undertake professional activities outside of their employment, particularly those that enhance their professional skills or allow for the application of knowledge to the problems of the community, provided such activities do not interfere with their primary commitments to their home institutions in accordance with institutional policies and regulations or national laws and practice where they exist.

• Self-governance and collegiality

31. Higher-education teaching personnel should have the right and opportunity, without discrimination of any kind, according to their abilities, to take part in the governing bodies and to criticize the functioning of higher education institutions, including their own, while respecting the right of other sections of the academic community to participate, and they should also have the right to elect a majority of representatives to academic bodies within the higher education institution.

32. The principles of collegiality include academic freedom, shared responsibility, the policy of participation of all concerned in internal decision making structures and practices, and the development of consultative mechanisms. Collegial decision-making should encompass decisions regarding the administration and determination of policies of higher education, curricula, research, extension work, the allocation of resources and other related activities, in order to improve academic excellence and quality for the benefit of society at large.

• Discipline and dismissal

48. No member of the academic community should be subject to discipline, including dismissal, except for just and sufficient cause demonstrable before an independent third-party hearing of peers, and/or before an impartial body such as arbitrators or the courts.

49. All members of higher-education teaching personnel should enjoy equitable safeguards at each stage of any disciplinary procedure, including dismissal, in accordance with the international standards set out in the appendix.

50. Dismissal as a disciplinary measure should only be for just and sufficient cause related to professional conduct, for example: persistent neglect of duties, gross incompetence, fabrication or falsification of research results, serious financial irregularities, sexual or other misconduct with students, colleagues, or other members of the academic community or serious threats thereof, or corruption of the educational process such as by falsifying grades, diplomas or degrees in return for money, sexual or other favours or by demanding sexual, financial or other material favours from subordinate employees or colleagues in return for continuing employment.

51. Individuals should have the right to appeal against the decision to dismiss them before independent, external bodies such as arbitrators or the courts, with final and binding powers...


November 23, 2023

The fight to end bullying in academia: UK researchers launch nationwide campaign

A group of academics and other staff members at several UK universities have launched an independent initiative to combat bullying and harassment in higher education. One of the group’s goals is to advocate for the establishment of an independent ombudsperson to which people who have been bullied can turn if they feel that their institution does not deal with a complaint adequately.

“We’ve become increasingly concerned about the prevalence of bullying in UK universities, and the fact that most universities seem to accept a very high level of bullying,” says Wyn Evans, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK, and a leader of the group. It is called the 21 Group, after the reported 21% of staff members at Cambridge who described experiencing bullying or harassment in a 2018 survey.

Surveys of various UK university departments and academic disciplines indicate that roughly 30–40% of students, scholars and other members of staff experience bullying or harassment by someone in their department or field, Evans says. Bullying can have pernicious and long-lasting effects on a person’s work and mental health.

The 21 Group, which launched on 1 November, has two initial goals. One is to gather broader data on bullying at UK universities by asking people to collect and share information on the number of bullying complaints received, and investigations done, by their institutions. The second is to advocate for an independent ombudsperson’s office to be set up for the UK higher-education system, giving people someone to turn to if institutions handle complaints about bullying badly. Such a body exists for undergraduate students — the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education — but not for others within the university system.

Internal investigations by universities often exonerate the subject of the complaint, who might be a senior professor or other person in a position of power, says Evans. “Far too many UK universities prioritize limiting reputational damage to the institution over doing the right thing for their staff and students.”

More info at:

November 18, 2023

...a special circle of hell...

"There is a special circle of hell for university administrators who reduce anti-bullying to a glossy public relations exercise."

November 17, 2023

Bullying support network launched due to universities’ ‘inaction’

UK university staff who have been the victim of bullying are being offered support by a new network amid repeated evidence that the problem is “endemic” in higher education.

Those behind the 21 Group – named after the percentage of staff members at the University of Cambridge who reported experiencing bullying in a 2020 survey – said it was needed because of a failure of universities to tackle the issue beyond “sloganising”.

It aims to conduct research to establish the true extent of bullying in UK universities and campaign for the creation of an independent ombudsman position that would take the handling of complaints away from being the sole domain of the internal processes of institutions.

Wyn Evans, professor of astrophysics at Cambridge – and one of the founders of the network – said it has its roots in a Times Higher Education article in which he claimed that bullying was “a feature of UK research universities, not a bug”, which prompted several people to come forward to share their own experiences.

The network consists of both university staff who have experienced bullying and those who have witnessed the “pain and hurt” it causes, according to Professor Evans.

He said despite ample evidence of the scale of bullying within universities – with many surveys putting the figure higher than the Cambridge poll – it is too often tolerated.

“The main obstacle is that senior management of universities come under pressure to hush things up – which clearly happens very often now,” Professor Evans said.

“Far too many UK universities prioritise limiting reputational damage to the institution over doing the right thing for their staff and students.

“This is because the bully is normally a senior professor or head of department. They are normally much more valuable to the university than the victim, who is often a student or a member of the professional services support staff.”

Professor Evans said a new body was needed to look at complaints because “organisations that investigate themselves exonerate themselves; they look for rugs enormous enough to sweep everything under”.

He pointed out that undergraduate students are able to take grievances to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education if they are unhappy with how they are dealt with internally, but there was no similar mechanism in place for staff or postgraduates.

As well as its more policy-focused work, the 21 Group aims to offer peer-to-peer support for the victims of bullying via informal advice and the chance to share experiences.

Because of the need to maintain confidentiality as bullying complaints are investigated, individuals are often left “feeling lonely, forsaken and with mental health problems” for months – or even years, Professor Evans said...

October 06, 2023

Challenging Bullying and Discrimination at the Open University

My name is Pilgrim Tucker. I am taking legal action against the Open University for discrimination on the basis of my disabilities, bullying associated with my gender-critical beliefs, harassment, victimisation, and breach of contract*, which has made it impossible for me to continue my PhD research at the OU. I need your support.

My Story

In 2017, I was invited to study for a PhD at the Open University by OU academic staff Professor A and Dr B following my campaigning work with residents of Grenfell Tower and the wider Lancaster West Estate before and after the 2017 fire.

I began my PhD at the OU in October 2018, researching the history of housing in North Kensington prior to the Grenfell Tower fire.

However, Dr C, the OU historian who had committed to providing input on the research project, was a leading transgender advocate within the university. He blocked me on social media, and then withdrew from working on my project. Although I was promised his expertise would be replaced, no history supervision input was provided.

From the time I started attempting to secure history supervision provision, OU staff began to construct a false narrative about my application, claiming I had never been promised history supervision input on my PhD, and that I was being unreasonable in expecting the university to provide it.

Subsequently, other administrative and pastoral aspects of my PhD provision began to go very wrong, and I started to become increasingly stressed and anxious and requested reasonable adjustments to accommodate my increasing mental health and menopause symptoms.

However rather than acknowledge and rectify any service provision failures, or put in place any adjustments to support my studies, the university attempted to conceal they had promised me history supervision and started to claim, falsely, that I had been rude to staff members, stating that the reason I had received a poor standard of provision at the university was due to illness and purported ‘problematic behavioural traits’ on my part.

The following are some of the claims which have been put to the OU in a pre-action letter, which they have not responded to:

Informing me, wrongly, that I had no entitlement to sick pay or sick leave during periods of ill health, although ESRC funding rules obliged the OU to provide it, and instead advising me to take unpaid leave and claim state benefits while unwell.

Failure to provide counselling support during the period I was undertaking interviews with victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, despite this being specified as a necessary ethical requirement on my research ethics application and OU staff promising me counselling would be provided.

Being incorrectly advised by the head of faculty and other OU staff responsible for my PhD that the only way to change supervision arrangements was by making a formal complaint.

Failing to provide any reasonable adjustments for my disabilities.

Wrongly informing OU staff that I was dyslexic.

Failing to reimburse expenses claims amounting to hundreds of pounds for almost 2 years.

Removing funding for book purchases and falsely claiming I had not had book purchase funding provided from the time I started my PhD.

Failure to apply the university’s covid tracked extension system to my PhD to cover time lost due to covid lockdowns.

Failing to provide accurate or reliable information about thesis submission deadlines, study break allowance, and extensions, and providing constantly changing and inaccurate information regarding this.

Insisting I accept a trans rights activist academic in a pastoral support role.

Seeking to take punitive action against me, based on false and unsubstantiated allegations about my conduct, following the submission of my complaint about the standard of service provided to me by the university.

Although following my complaint the Open University accepted that I had been wrongly advised by senior OU staff members and that I had experienced shortfalls in administrative provision, they minimised these, denying the majority of their failings. They have made no apology and offered no remedy or compensation.

The next step is for my barrister to draft particulars of the case in preparation for a legal hearing.

I am currently seeking to raise £11,000, in two stages, this is made up of £5230 in solicitors fees and £5670 – the cost of Barrister Alice De Coverley drafting the particulars of the case.

Thank you for any contribution you can make.

*My breach of contract claim encompasses the university’s failure to act in accordance with its own policies and procedures, and a breach of its duty to perform the service with reasonable care and skill. My contractual claim raises the same issues as a negligence claim and includes bullying associated with my gender-critical beliefs.

You can pledge at:

Bullying is a feature of UK research universities, not a bug

 ...Three years ago, Unite, Unison and the University and College Union carried out an investigation into bullying at Cambridge. The results fell into the category of the least surprising news ever – alongside the likes of “Boris Johnson has another affair” and “banker receives an enormous bonus”.

Specifically, the survey found that nearly one in three Cambridge staff had either been the victims of bullying and victimisation or had witnessed it in the previous 18 months. Worse still, more than half of those who had experienced bullying did not report it, with many believing that nothing would be done or that the perpetrator would retaliate.

My view on bullies in universities is that they’re a feature, not a bug.

Huge grants, prestigious prizes, adulatory press coverage, first-author publications, untrammelled power over enormous research groups: these are all highly flattering to the ego. It is no coincidence, then, that big egos are associated with “top academics”, alongside charisma, self-promotion and self-importance. And these qualities are also present in the kinds of people who bully others.

Not all top academics are bullies, but quite a few are. And bullying thrives in the hierarchical and hyper-competitive environment of top universities. Tackling it is difficult because the bully is typically so much more valuable than the victim, and direction from the top can easily lead any inquiry to exonerate the bully by finding the evidence inconclusive.

On the academic side, the people most often bullied are graduate students and post-doctoral research assistants. Victims might first approach a departmental anti-bullying representative or a wellness advocate, often a sympathetic senior academic. The problem may be resolved informally – but, if it is at all serious, it will most likely not. You will then be encouraged to contact human resources.

Your difficulties are about to begin.

...But UK universities are organised differently, so allegations are not handled by an independent body. Even if your HR department commissions an external report, they will choose the investigator with a view to protecting the institution.

Unsurprisingly, the Cambridge survey found that women were more likely than men to experience bullying and harassment. It also found that non-academic support staff were more likely to be bullied than academics; you are especially expendable if you do not bring in any money from research or teaching.

So if you are a female member of support staff, there is no way to sugarcoat it: you are at high risk of being bullied. In the saddest case known to me, one such individual at a UK university killed herself because of bullying.

The best advice to a member of support staff who is being bullied is to join your trade union immediately. Trade union lawyers are among the UK’s heroes. You will need their experience of employment law in any battle with your HR department.

To give one example, many violations of good employment practice have statutes of limitations. It is easy to waste months raising matters with intransigent HR staff only to find you are out of time. As soon as there are difficulties, raise the matter immediately with your trade union. Don’t believe HR’s endless blather about “putting people first” or “breaking the silence about bullying”. It is just spin to enable your university to look good and get its Athena SWAN badge.

As for Cambridge’s new policy, if bullying is as pervasive as the unions’ survey suggested, why is no one ever dismissed? In all my years at Cambridge, I cannot recall a single instance of a bully being held to account. That lack of action speaks much louder than any YouTube video could about where the priorities have lain.


October 01, 2023

Workplace Bullying In Academia: A Canadian Study


"...Systemic bullying, hazing and abuse generally are identified with poor, weak or toxic organizational cultures. Cultures that are toxic have stated ethical values that are espoused but not employed, and other non-ethical values which are operational, dominant, but unstated. Such cultures thrive when good people are silent, silenced, or pushed out; when bad apples are vocal, retained, promoted, and empowered; and when the neutral majority remain silent in order to survive. Those who are most successful in such a toxic culture are those who have adapted to it or adopted it as their own...

Evidence of an institutionalized element to the university workplace bullying is found in the openness with which some employees and students are exhibiting behaviours viewed as bullying. These findings are significant when linked with the level of awareness of such behaviours and the frequency of the behaviours. This indicates a pervasive and prolonged nature to the bullying and suggests an organizational culture component to the behaviour. The lack of a policy dealing with harassment outside the Human Rights Act may be a contributing factor. It is also possible, due to a lack of awareness, that the individual events have not been linked together to identify the systemic nature of the issue...

The lack of an overall policy for inappropriate behaviour means that each incident is dealt with in isolation and does not contribute to a set policy by the administration for addressing this issue. There is also inconsistency across the organization regarding how workplace bullying incidents are handled. As a result, some faculty, instructors and librarians believe they are not supported when they raise concerns. This also contributes to the ineffectiveness of administrators in addressing such issues as best practices have not been established..."

McKay, R., Arnold, D.H., Fratzl, J. et al. Workplace Bullying In Academia: A Canadian Study. Employ Respons Rights J 20, 77–100 (2008).

September 30, 2023

Bullying in higher education: an endemic problem?


...The purpose of this article is to explore and examine the research evidence to see what it reveals about the extent and nature of bullying in higher education, the wider issues that this raises, and the possible solutions that have been put forward, trialled and evaluated.

These searches reveal an upswelling of interest in bullying in higher education over the last 20 years. For example, a search carried out on Scopus on 22/6/23 identified 698 articles with the words ‘bullying’, ‘higher’ and ‘education’ in their titles, abstracts or keywords, 48 of which had those three words in their titles, indicating a likely focus on the topic of interest. Similar searches using ‘bullying’ and ‘university’ identified 1361 (113) articles, while ‘bullying’ and ‘college’ found 593 (57) articles. This is a substantial and growing body of literature...

Within the intersecting hierarchies of institution and discipline, there operates the principle of ‘academic freedom’, albeit constrained by other expectations and responsibilities. In its ideal state, each academic member of staff is seen as having the freedom to determine what they teach and how they teach it, as well as what they research and how they research it. Of course, it rarely works quite like that in practice, particularly when it comes to teaching, which is today a much more collective and large-scale activity and constrained by the need to receive good evaluations and the recognition of professional bodies. Research often depends upon gaining specific funding, so is constrained by the funds available and the priorities of funding organisations.

Academic life and careers are also built upon competition. To build a successful academic career, each academic needs to get their name known, even if only within a relatively small field: through conference presentations, through article and book publications, through successfully obtaining research grants. Each of these activities, as well as the gaining of employment and promotion, involves peer review when a small number of academic peers are asked to make an assessment of your worthiness..."

Tight, M. Bullying in higher education: an endemic problem?. Tert Educ Manag 29, 123–137 (2023).

August 22, 2023

How to Combat Bullying and Discrimination in the Geosciences

Here are 10 practical steps that scientists can take to counteract the detrimental effects of abusive academic work environments.

1. Recognize an unhealthy work environment. Recognizing discriminatory behavior is the most crucial point, although the hierarchical nature of academia can make this recognition inherently difficult when it is someone you look up to who is misbehaving. First, if there is a problem, do not assume you are at fault! It is the responsibility of the person in power to not be hostile in their actions or words. Academic institutions and departments should have definitions and guidelines for ethical behavior in place as well as policies protecting employees and students from harassment and bullying...

2. Prioritize your well-being. Mental and physical well-being are inseparable and should be your first focus. Make sure you get enough sleep, take breaks, and do things that make you happy. You are valued for more than your capital and abilities as a scientist, and your well-being should never suffer. Do not hesitate to seek professional psychological help and other well-being resources and services, which many academic institutions already offer to their staff and students. There is no shame in getting external perspectives to guide you through your situation.

3. Confront your situation. It takes a lot of courage to approach a person who is harming you, particularly given the risks of their retaliation. However, by doing so, you take charge of the situation and signal to the culprit that their behavior is unacceptable. We recommend having such a discussion in a public place, for example, a cafeteria. If you feel more comfortable having a third party involved, reach out to a trusted person to join the conversation. Aim to establish agreements that detail how the perpetrator will change their behavior and how they will follow through with their role as a mentor in charge of your growth as a scientist...

4. Approach someone you trust. Reach out to a trusted individual for guidance. An ally who can effectively advise you and advocate for you can be an invaluable source of support and can help protect you from retaliation. Universities and research institutions often employ ombudspeople or others trained to mediate conflict situations. Seek guidance from these individuals, or, if your institution does not have staff trained in mediation, look for peer-mentoring support options at your institution and beyond—there are a myriad of early-career scientist networks, student councils, and online community resources of scientific societies, as well as Twitter and Slack groups.

5. Dare to speak up. It is possible or even likely that colleagues of yours face similar issues but have not spoken up. Finding the courage to do so can be hard for countless reasons. However, simply sharing experiences about and strategies on how to handle difficult work situations can already help you feel better. Sharing your experience with others could also create a “Me Too”–type effect, enabling you to act more effectively as a group against perpetrators. Moreover, having open conversations and removing taboos on discussions regarding harassment and bullying are important steps forward in acknowledging systemic problems.

6. Look for supportive collaborators. For most people, a hostile workplace will negatively affect the quality of their work. Try to find other experts in your field who can get involved in your research and act as mentors and allies. By expanding your team of supervisors or collaborators, you can diffuse the effects of power abuses that can occur in one-on-one relationships. Do not hesitate to approach potential collaborators with your scientific ideas at conferences or via email. However, make sure those scientists are not close associates or friends of the perpetrator...

7. Change your physical work environment. Changing the physical environment in which you work can help put not only literal distance but also mental distance between you and an abusive situation. You could, for example, ask for a new workspace in a different office, laboratory, or building; change occasionally to work from other places (e.g., the library or home); or look for opportunities to work as a visiting scientist in another research group...

8. Document all incidents. Make notes and memos of important conversations with your supervisor and send them as meeting summaries. Such records can be key if your supervisor ignores agreements or your situation is elevated to an institutional level where “proof” of your situation is requested. Also, take note of bystanders who might have witnessed the discriminatory behavior you have experienced...

10. Explore external resources. 
In addition to resources provided through your institution, professional societies and other groups provide external sources of support. For example, AGU has an Ethics and Equity Center that provides free legal consultation for those who may be targets of hostile and toxic environments. These resources and organizations can offer guidance on how to resolve conflict situations that potentially involve legal actions.

There is no straightforward or easy way to improve or get out of a discriminatory work environment. The above steps are intended to empower individuals facing abuse and to help overcome or alleviate the consequences of workplace bullying, discrimination, and other behaviors that stem from imbalanced power dynamics in academic settings...


June 29, 2023

Mind your Head: An introduction to Workplace Bullying in Academia

 ...Bullying and mobbing in academia are often particularly obscure – the situations develop in the so-called grey zone. This is related to the high level of intellect of the aggressors, the complex power structures, and the highly flexible and diverse working arrangements. Trying to identify what is or is not reasonable is thus blurred and the forms in which aggressions are executed are diverse. A key aspect, however, is that the question of what is (or is not) bullying does not evolve around whether the aggressor’s (bully) behaviour is (un)intentional, but rather whether it is unwanted on the side of the recipient (target). Some of the bully’s actions might occur as apparent (unintentional) overreactions, oversights, or matters of diverging opinions, when, in fact, the behaviour is systematic.

For instance, scheduling a work meeting during the target’s vacation falls into the category of seemingly innocent oversights, which may, however, be a deliberate action to hinder the target in receiving information vital to workplace performance, communicating their viewpoint, labeling the target as unprofessional (if they eventually fail to participate), or even to interrupt their recreation periods (which reduces the target’s resilience). 
We provide more examples in box 1 (below). Only putting all incidents into a larger context, demonstrating the repetitive nature and the harm to the targeted individual allows to shed light on the true dynamics in a workplace bullying or workplace mobbing situation. The obscure nature, unfortunately, frequently inhibits bystanders to support the target, and may also cause misinterpretations and consequently poor handling of the situation by management (human resources, line managers, directorate, etc.). Thus, a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics behind workplace bullying and workplace mobbing is critical when tackling the issue...

The bully. Workplace aggression is typically a result of the aggressor’s weakness, rather than that of the target. Frequently, bullies feel threatened in one way or another, for example, by the target’s competence, achievements, or high work ethic and integrity. Bullies tend to compensate for a lack of acknowledgment they perceive themselves and attempt to victimize others in order to improve their own personal or professional well-being. Often bullies perfectly understand how to keep the target stressed without being spotted. For instance, rather than one evident attack, bullies might engage in a high frequency and diversity of seemingly subtle actions. These are more difficult to spot from the outside and harm the target through continuously reviving distress from previous experiences. Bullies may be well aware of how to present themselves as caring, cooperative, or even naive when needed, and to display the target as a disruptive individual instead. Sometimes bullies suffer from personality disorders, such as narcissism, and thus (might) enjoy their skilled psychological manipulations.

The target. Targets themselves often feel confused by what they experience. They might have difficulties acknowledging the situation, and first undergo a phase of denial before realizing they are a target of workplace aggression. They may be deliberately isolated by the bully, feel ashamed and guilty, and do not know who to trust. This makes it challenging for them to speak to coworkers, friends, and family, and to seek professional help. The aggressions accumulate over time, and even seemingly small incidents can do tremendous harm, through reviving previous experiences. To outsiders (bystanders), this might sometimes give the impression that the target reacts unproportional, when a particular situation is taken out of its larger context. Unfortunately, some targets become actual victims, and sadly self-harm and even conduct suicide, or become aggressive towards others. Even without such tragedy, they might not be able to re-integrate themselves into the workforce for long, with severe and lasting consequences for physical and mental health, social relationships, and financial stability.

The bystanders.
 Bystanders might be viewed as “spectators” to the situation, in “stand by”. The aggressor, however, feels significantly less powerful, if bystanders do not tolerate the bullying. Thus, “active bystanders” are a crucial component to address in the goal to stop workplace aggression. Yet, some bystanders avoid supporting the target. Some people might in fact be forced to or wilfully take sides with the bully and form a mob, from which the term “mobbing” derives. Others might remain “passive bystanders”. This category of bystanders might be scared to become a target themselves, feel unprepared to help, and thus ignore the situation. Most of the bystanders, however, might simply be unaware of the underlying dynamics, as academic bullies are highly skilled in hiding the nature of their true intentions. Sometimes, the aggressor is perceived as a trustworthy role model, in particular when supported by management or in a position of power themselves. The aggressor’s behaviour towards the target then sets the scene for everyone else, and the target is turned into a common enemy and viewed as the (initial) cause of trouble. Only those trained to recognize abusive situations will be able to see through the smoke and can become active bystanders, who support the target, or even “upstanders”, who advocate for change in their work environment and/or the scientific community. 

The management. Problematic character traits and behaviour of singular people do not create an extended workplace bullying or even workplace mobbing situation – workplace aggression thrives when management is negligent or promotes a toxic culture in the first place. Bullies may hide their actions in the grey zone, which obscures the situation leading to a lack of awareness and misunderstanding by management. At the same time, independent support systems for the target to help them analyse and advocate their case are difficult to access and afford. Aside, truly independent and neutral evaluation bodies are often missing and guidelines are only available on paper, without the implementation of proper protocols and training on how to follow them. This combination of factors might lead from workplace bullying to a workplace mobbing situation, when management refrains from supporting the target appropriately in an attempt to protect their own interests, and (indirectly) takes sides with the more powerful bully. If upright integrity and expertise are missing, management’s involvement may thus cause additional harm to the target instead of protecting the employee's health and safety (although the latter is in fact employers’ legal responsibility in many countries of the world)...

June 26, 2023

University of Groningen faces growing calls to reinstate sacked gender-equality researcher...


A tenured professor who was sacked after speaking out against what she saw as her university’s failure to implement its own equality policy is planning to appeal against her dismissal.

In March, a court ruled that the University of Groningen in the Netherlands could sack Susanne Täuber, a social-psychology and employment policy researcher after it found that there was a “permanently disturbed employment relationship” between the two parties.

The ruling on 8 March, International Women’s Day, sparked a demonstration at the university and an outcry among academics around the world, with more than 3,600 signing an open letter calling for Täuber to be reinstated, saying that she was being “punished for exerting her academic freedom”.

“Firing a scholar who published work that is critical of powerful institutions, including the university itself, sets a disturbing precedent for us all,” they wrote.

On 23 March, University of Groningen students staged a sit-in protesting against Täuber’s firing, and highlighting the lack of “social safety” at the university.

Täuber told Nature that she would appeal against her dismissal, which is due to take effect on 1 May.

“I have until June to say that I am not OK with my sacking,” she says. “But then I will have to figure out who will pay for the appeal as I will be unemployed.”

Täuber, who is German, has worked at Groningen since 2009. In 2013, she was awarded a five-year Rosalind Franklin fellowship, a university scheme aimed at female academics, mostly those who are non-Dutch.

In 2018, she made an official complaint that she had been passed over for promotion, arguing that she had as many published papers and research grants as colleagues who had been promoted above her...

She says that hers is not an isolated case: a survey she undertook at the university found that of 26 employees who had made official complaints of harassment, 16 had reported being further bullied.

Natalie Scholz, a historian at the University of Amsterdam, said the reason Täuber’s dismissal has sparked such anger is that it has made many academics fear similar treatment if they criticize their own institutions. The case has even sparked its own social media hashtag: #AmINext.

Susanne had a tenured position. If a university fires somebody who is well known in that specific field, then it looks like no one is safe … Nobody can expect to be able to speak out,” she said.

“This case shows you cannot rely on university management to help you. We need a body that is completely independent of universities, where you can go to report complaints,” she added.

...Täuber is a member of the Academic Parity Movement, a global campaign to end bullying and discrimination in academia. Morteza Mahmoudi, a precision-health specialist at Michigan State University in East Lansing and the co-founder and director of the movement, says:

“Bullying slows down the evolution of science. Many smart people leave academia and public money gets wasted. And the sad thing is that the outcomes of cases like Susanne’s send a very clear signal to other perpetrators that they will be protected, and a negative signal to targets that they should use the code of silence.”