Workplace disputes must be handled better and faster

Universities must follow best practice in bullying and other personnel complaints, says an academic who has been through the process

July 17, 2014

Source: Patrick Welham

Universities have fine policies and procedures on respect and dignity, but many are just ignored. The complainant is too often seen as the problem

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.

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Reader's comments (10)

Thanks for a constructive piece on this topic. It's almost a hallmark of academia that "first line" managers (usually department chairs) have little or no leadership and management training. That is one of the important issues when trying to explain how the quality of universities as workplaces is so low. The freedom and the opportunity to explore and to have contact with students is wonderful, but the actually working environment in situations like those discussed here is not. The literature increasing includes discussion of the notion of "microaggression" which is related to "bullying" conceptually. A few thoughts on that topic appear in "Microaggression: Do sweat the small stuff" at
fully agree with this
I agree with all of this, but there's plenty missing. What about the culpability of HR staff who see their role as "protecting" the institution from complaints, rather than attempting to make it a good place to work? In some institutions, HR collude with the perpetrators of bullying and harassment, to the extent of withholding or suppressing evidence. Independent audit of HR processes is long overdue.
It's all very sensible, but the elephant in the room is whether senior academics without any managerial achievements should be given these responsibilities in the first place at all. Why is there different practice for other managerial positions under the same roof? Why is it the case that in many universities senior academics manage administrative staff, many of whom are themselves experienced managers? The problems do not just lie in underperformance or disputes, but also in recognising and rewarding good performance. The working environment can be so much improved if these fundamental issues / inequalities can be addressed.
My experience leads me fully to concur. Procedures are, indeed, established, but ignored. In one instance, we went through a return-to-work interview and paperwork for a member of the office staff who had taken sick leave because of a 'disagreement' with a member of the academic staff. No one would acknowledge that the paperwork had been completed and passed up the line. She left shortly afterwards for a new position. As for training, the union runs training seminars for its local officers in employment law. negotiation, and dispute resolution. Unfortunately, it's only in extremis that unions are invited to pursue personal cases. As has been mentioned by others, HR has become nothing more than administration for recruitment and implementation of employer-side desiderata. It is simply a personnel function, rather than human resource management.
I agree that it is inappropriate for insufficiently-trained and/or inexperienced people (academic or administrative) to deal with these important matters. In addition to inviting departures from natural justice this greatly increases financial, legal and reputation risk to institutions. That's why HR should not be allowed to duck resonsibility for guiding correct process. In terms of training, it is insufficient to train on what B+H is - the point is training on FAIR PROCESS in managing these situations when they happen. ACAS offers face-to-face or online training. The online course in fair investigation is here: . You have to log in to see it (under discipline and grievance) and it is free. Reading this highly recommended for all parties (particularly the B+H targets if they feel that their complaints are being swept under the carpet). Its based on the ACAS code - its not legally required that employers follow this, but tribunal awards can be increased by 25% if employers break it - only a very poor HR Department would allow this anyway. The ACAS code is here:
It seems to me that once a bully always a bully and any amount of ADR will not change the power a bully craves. In all walks of life we encounter bullies and to change this behaviour requires a completely different set of skills for the conflict resolver. Empowerment is crucial to any outcome and creating a ediation
Cont) Mediation forum maybe inappropriate in some bullying incidences. Therefore I suggest a coaching session for both parties in preparation for the session. Remember bullies are clever and cunning and your magic may not work on them . In my area of dispute resolution I refer to this as negotiating settlement paying particular attention to outcome for the bully. The opposite outcome could be a recurrence and devestating.
I presently work in this field as a Mediator in a range of London universities and while having an effective investigation process is important, the risk to such an approach being the only one considered is that it entrenches the 'positions' of those involved. No manager accepts an accusation of 'bullying' without seeking an immediate defence and frequently counter allegations about the initial complainant will follow. Because the definitions used for bullying are easily subjectively interpreted (see ACAS definitions for example) HR officers tasked with investigating are in a very difficult position when there is an expectation of a clear outcome from all involved (those accused and those accusing) As a result, mediation or, as has been mentioned already conflict coaching, are often more effective in enabling a re-establishment of the working relationship. The outcome of a large majority of allegations that lead to an investigation will be one or both staff members involved leaving the place of work within a year of it occurring or even while it is going on. An approach which accommodates the subjective perceptions of those involved (and that is always the main obstacle in any such situations) and enables a forthright discussion about them can be a highly effective way of approaching bullying and harassment allegations rather than what will often be an unsatisfactory outcome that follows from investigations. The tendency in any discussions where bullying allegations are made is that the accuser's perspective is always the 'right' one, but unfortunately the very label 'bully' when applied adopts a 'guilty until proven innocent' approach which inevitably leads to resistance and entrenchment by the person labelled as such and gives good grounds for them claiming some form of mistreatment as a result, even to claim that they themselves have been 'bullied'.
As curt says " It's almost a hallmark of academia that "first line" managers (usually department chairs) have little or no leadership and management training. " However that statement is not restricted to academia and it certainly doesn't have the monopoly over it. People need to have the right mindset to change it and that's a change that in itself is easier said than done. However there is hope and he're one solution that works.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments