Ask the panel

April 7, 2006

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

I work in a 'failing' department at a post-1992 institution. The head of department keeps files on staff containing 'evidence' of alleged professional shortcomings and perceived 'misdemeanours', however minor or imaginary. My colleagues and I believe these documents will be used should attempts be made to sack staff or should we initiate grievance procedures.

Requests are met to view individual personnel files under the Data Protection Act (they contain nothing of interest), but the head of department denies the existence of other files. What right do we have to access them and contest their contents, given that they don't officially exist?

* Our Association of University Teachers panellist says: "Maintaining 'secret' files on staff is obviously unacceptable. As well as the accessibility of notes in the file, the institution also risks being in breach of the Data Protection Act in relation to the security of the notes.

It is in the institution's interests to ensure such files are not kept.

"If your institution is not prepared to take action, you should consider getting union support to take a collective grievance.

"The problem will be demonstrating that the file exists. However, you and your colleagues know it exists, so there must be some evidence. Such evidence could, for example, be in the form of statements from staff who have seen the file and contents or heard your head of department talking about it.

"The purpose of the grievance would be to disclose the contents of the file and to ensure that all notes on staff are maintained properly, are accessible to staff and are challengeable. If grievance does establish the existence of the file but the institution refuses to take action, you could consider referring the matter to the Information Commissioner, who is responsible for enforcing the DPA."

* Our Natfhe panellist says: "If the existence of these documents is denied, then the one positive point is that they can't be used.

"A first step would be to collate evidence that such files exist and then formally ask for their disclosure under the terms of the DPA, being as specific as you can. If their existence is denied, then their formal use has been neutralised.

"The Natfhe branch could also ask the human resources director for confirmation that the holding of such files breaches university disciplinary arrangements, that the university agrees that such files should be destroyed and would regard the manager as being in breach of the university's arrangements for the conduct of disciplinary matters, as well as potentially in breach of the DPA.

"The branch should ensure that any such statements are publicised as a warning to any other managers engaged in dubious practices."

He adds:"There is also a wider issue here. Natfhe members know that disciplinary proceedings are not always conducted fairly. The branch might want to insist that guidance on this issue is inserted into the training of managers on disciplinary matters and into the jointly agreed disciplinary procedure."

* Our panellist for the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "The head of department has made clear that the alleged files, as you describe them, do not exist. If you have adequate evidence to the contrary, you should provide her with it so that, in the interests of fairness, she can respond.

"Managers are responsible for ensuring high standards from the staff they supervise. They will note instances where employees fall below the standard expected. These may or may not be of substance.

"What is certain is that if they are, and disciplinary measures ensue, the employee will be given a full and fair opportunity to challenge the evidence. That is a lot more than you are prepared to offer your head of department."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.

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