Uni move to reduce staff bullying and harassment

Uni move to reduce staff bullying and harassment

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university_exeter_forum_i030512_tp2An investigation by Exeposé has revealed that the University of Exeter is implementing strategies to improve the working environment for their employees. The University’s most recent Staff Survey indicated that 4.4 per cent of staff felt bullied or harassed at work.

The survey, conducted in Spring 2012, estimated that nearly 50 staff across the University described themselves as feeling “bullied” or “harassed” by another colleague or a superior. Despite this, only one official complaint about bullying or harassment was submitted to the University in the academic year 2011/12, amidst what one academic currently working at the University has described as an “oppressive” culture.

Figures obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) show that between three and five per cent of respondents from colleges including Life and Environmental Sciences, the Medical School, and Social Sciences and International Studies said that they felt bullied at the time of the survey. Nine per cent of 214 respondents from the College of Humanities said that they felt bullied or harassed, nearly double that of any other college, and triple that of any other college included in the survey, excluding the Business School.

The survey, answered by 1,072 staff, is the only staff satisfaction survey that the University has undertaken since the academic year 2009/10.

An academic who currently works in the Humanities department told Exeposé that they considered it “almost impossible” for a junior academic to have a meaningful impact on college-wide decisions that were being made on their behalf. They also suggested that some academics were “bored” with trying to change what they considered to be an “abusive” use of “top-down executive policy” in order to regulate staff.

In addition to the survey figures, Exeposé’s data request revealed that three official complaints alleging bullying or harassment have been made to the University since 2010/11, with one complaint respectively in each full academic year since that point.

From these three complaints, two investigations have been carried out into the allegations made, while in the other case, the employee resigned before the University began to consider the grievance.

The two investigations resulted in one instance in an employee being given training and a change of management, while in another, the employee resigned before a disciplinary hearing could take place.

Another academic, who recently left the University, told Exeposé in October that: “During my time at Exeter, I saw serious bullying by management, openly expressed contempt for able academic staff, and unjustifiable attempts to sack people while gross misbehaviour by management went unremarked and uninvestigated. I was very glad indeed to leave such a troubled institution”.

When contacted by Exeposé regarding this statement earlier this year, the University declined to comment on the former academic’s opinion on the grounds that they didn’t know the circumstances surrounding their employment and departure.

Exeposé understands that the University is implementing four key policies in order to improve working conditions at the University. A Wellbeing project, sponsored by DVC Professor Janice Kay and led by Kate Lindsell, Assistant HR Director (Health and Safety), will review how well the University provides for the physical and mental needs of their workforce. This will include a full review of occupational health services. This team will work closely with the Future Workways project, which focuses on working environments and flexible working.

The Leadership and Voice team, sponsored by Vice Chancellor Steve Smith, will focus on how leadership teams and employees can improve their connection and communication, in order to build a stronger sense of engagement and a healthy dialogue across the University. This initiative will include all members of the Vice Chancellor’s Executive Group going “back to the floor” in the New Year, spending a day with a colleague to understand the day-to-day issues their employees face.

The University is also prioritising the promotion of a culture of dignity and respect, in order to promote the right behaviours and empower people to safely express their opinions about situations that feel wrong. This initiative, sponsored by DVC Professor Mark Goodwin and led by Andrew Johnson (HR), will launch a common Code of Conduct, guiding both students and staff and underpinning University policy.

A parallel workstream is also doing further work on one of the biggest concerns raised in the last Staff Survey, that of academic workloads. This project sets out to address these concerns, including the implementation of a common system to support workload management. It is sponsored by DVC Professor Nick Talbot, and led by Gill Allaway, who works in Strategic Planning and Change.

The next staff survey takes place in April 2014, while HR will also be implementing more regular Pulse surveys to be more in tune with what staff are feeling and thinking.

A University spokesman said: “The 2012 University of Exeter staff survey revealed that 88 per cent of staff say the University is a good place to work and 89 per cent are proud to work here.

Some 5 per cent of staff reported being harassed or bullied. Eleven other universities took part in the same staff survey and the range is 3-14 per cent, so we have one of the lowest rates in the sector.

The Vice-Chancellor has held open forums with 1,200 staff and bullying has not been raised as an issue. We have a zero tolerance approach to bullying and have a team of harassment advisers to whom staff can talk to in confidence as well as several members of the senior team with whom staff can discuss any concerns”.

Hannah Barton, Guild President, commented: “Staff wellbeing is an important issue that deserves the University’s close attention. All employees have a right to feel valued at work and I believe that satisfied staff are better prepared to provide the sector-leading university experience that our students expect”.

Owen Keating, News Editor

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