OPINION08 December 2020 comments 1
Suggestions for a socially safer university
Why are colleagues often scared to report social unsafety at work? And how can we take away the barriers? Paola Gori Giorgi offers some analysis and suggestions. The work council members might be the link in this.
I really appreciate the response of our University Board to the open letter on non-disclosure (and similar) agreements, saying that these clauses do not prevent ex-employees to report socially unsafe situations they might have experienced. It is a very important and historical step.
In the letter the Board also says “Finally, we would like to emphasize how important it is for employees to share their experiences and report complaints”, recognizing that “reporting problems requires courage” and that they “will take a closer look at how we deal with reports and whether we can remove any barriers in this process.”
I would like to offer some analysis and suggestions on this point. I hope other people will feel encouraged to do the same, gathering together ideas on this important problem.
As contact point of WOinActie VU I had the opportunity to interact with wonderful colleagues from all over the VU, in our stimulating interdisciplinary campus. A few times, I have been also approached by colleagues in distress, even if just to have a piece of advice or a listening hear. Of course, everything that has been reported to me may be disputed. But, given the mounting evidence of social unsafety in universities, I feel important to share my observations based on these conversations.
Without entering in any personal and confidential detail, people experiencing these difficult situations have often explained what prevents them to take any official step, or even simply confront the person(s) at the origin of the problem. Here are the main reasons.
The past matters
Their explanation invariably includes stories of former colleagues who dared to speak up (or even simply to confront their problematic manager in line), and paid too high a price. Sometimes, they have been forced out of the VU, even if only in oblique ways. Arguably, their career has been damaged, while the effectiveness of the measures (if any) taken to address the problematic situation is disputable. Even a single case like that might be enough to scare people for many years.
Perception gap between top and bottom
Moreover, cases in which the person who dared to speak up has been relocated to other parts of the university are often officially presented as examples of positive outcome for everybody. Many of these very same cases, instead, are perceived as an additional set of ‘scary examples’ by most of the staff, as the relocation did not end so well for the employee in question. This ‘perception gap’ between the top and the bottom of the university seems to be quite common and part of the problem.
The fear of an official step
Many people I talked to do not feel comfortable to contact the confidential counselor (‘vertrouwenspersoon’), or the ombudsman. They don’t know them personally and they see them as people nominated top-down. Moreover, they are scared by the officiality of the step, which might have far reaching legal consequences.
Most situations are complex
Many problematic situations have intricated roots in choices made in a past in which certain conducts were tolerated, with several people involved. Such situations might have gray areas and do not have simple solutions, as it is not about sending away a single ‘bad’ person, which is often a very simplistic view of the problem. This is particularly challenging for the university/faculty boards who inherited issues ignored by their predecessors. Employees suffering from these situations feel particularly helpless.
Our Board and the VSNU tackle the problem of social safety on different fronts: they talk about changing the culture, changing the way we recognize and reward people, and putting attention to good leadership. In WOinActie, we think that one of the main reasons things may go wrong is a lack of democracy and a hyper-hierarchical structure. Extreme high pressure and a funding system with perverse incentives are also key contributing factors. Proper funding without perverse incentives, and a flatter organization, where decisions are taken in a more collegial way, would probably solve many of these problems.
But what to do in the meanwhile, in the present structure? People are scared, and the utterance that they should speak, even if coming from the higher ranks of the university, may not be sufficiently persuasive.
Healing the past
Recognizing past errors seems to me a necessary step to move forward. We need a concrete way to do that, possibly inviting former employees to report any socially unsafe situation they may have experienced in the past three (or more?) years to the confidential counselors. Invite present employees to also report past cases they perceive as having being handled in a particularly unfair way. Analyze the reports and investigate, confronting the people involved when appropriate. Consider offering an apology or even reintegration if needed.
Informal reporting, investigations and solutions
The work council members are often known and trusted by the rest of the academic staff. They are the only people in the whole university who are elected and not nominated top down. They are also known to the respective boards. They seem to me in the ideal position to become visible figures that people can address informally. In turn, they could keep pressure on the boards to address problematic situations, at a purely informal level. Being in contact with the staff members of the department(s) involved, the work council can offer a perspective ‘from below’ to the board, thus preventing to consider as ‘solved’ issues that are not widely perceived as such. This approach could be particularly effective for some complex situations originating in a past where the standards may have been somewhat different. Such situations may require creative solutions that need to be monitored on the long run.
In a context of greater openness on this matter, as encouraged in the letter of the University Board, confidentiality should not be an unsurmountable hurdle for this. The official steps could then be left only for the most serious cases. If we make it clear that the aim of this informal framework is not to start a witch hunt or to shame people, but to change ‘the culture’ and to solve problems, openness should be possible.
Gori Giorgi is professor of theoretical and mathematical chemistry and the initiator of #WOinActie @VU