Ask The panel

July 8, 2005

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I am a black lecturer in an old university. I feel that my line manager treats me unfairly. He excludes me from conversations and has three times denied me development opportunities. He has also formally warned me that my work is of poor quality. His criticisms were minor and he has made similar observations about my colleagues' work - but in their case in an informal chat. Am I being paranoid and what should I do?

The trade unions feel you have cause for concern.

"No you are not being paranoid," says our lecturers' union Natfhe panellist. "Much discrimination starts with considerations as to whether black and ethnic minority staff 'fit in'."

He says you should start by making a private record of your concerns. You should also raise the matter informally with your line manager. "It is possible he will be taken aback and accept that his approach is inappropriate. If you get a hostile response, you will need to deal with the matter more formally."

Approach your union representative. "You will need to set out formally your concerns and any supporting information," he says.

"Your union representative should have access to the monitoring data the university is required to collect on the make-up of the workforce by ethnic origin, on applications, appointments, promotions, discipline and access to training and development. The university should also keep records of the training in equality that its managers have received.

"You should ask the union rep to find out if any Natfhe members have had similar experiences. If so, you can discuss how they handled their issue."

If a formal approach and meeting do not produce results, you will need to lodge a grievance setting out your concerns, highlighting supporting evidence and clarifying what outcome you want.

"If nothing else, this meets the minimum requirements you will need should you wish to pursue the matter through a tribunal - in which case you must be aware of the strict time limits on lodging a claim," the Natfhe panellist explains.

But he adds that it is much better to tackle your concerns as early and informally as possible. "Legal redress is difficult. Natfhe should be able to put pressure on the human resources department informally (or formally) to ensure that your concerns are raised properly," he says.

The Association of University Teachers panellist concurs:

"Even if you are being paranoid, you have the right to have your concerns investigated. You should not be treated any less favourably than your white colleagues. You should, however, try to secure the assistance of a colleague as this type of situation can be difficult to handle on your own.

A friend or trade union representative can be a source of support and advice.

"You should approach the university's equal-opportunities officer and ask for your concerns to be investigated and this should include a comparison of the way you and your colleagues have been treated.

You must ensure that you have access to the full report. You can then decide if further action is necessary."

* The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says:

"This query raises a number of different issues. The reasons for denying development opportunities are not clear, and there may be valid reasons for the manager's decisions and approaches to other issues you raise. What you describe is from a subjective point of view, so you need to gather objective information before you decide what action to take.

"If the information you gather shows that you have been treated differently from your colleagues, you may have reason to raise a formal grievance. But this is a serious step. Before doing anything formally, I suggest talking to your manager with the aim of clearing up any potential misunderstandings. You may also want to discuss the matter with your institution's equalities officer or to contact the Employee Assistance Programme."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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