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.

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Reader's comments (2)

fully agree with this
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.

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