Ask the panel

October 27, 2006

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

I was promoted to a management position six months ago and have enjoyed most aspects of my job. But I have been having problems with one member of staff who has worked in the department for years and has always had difficulties with the workload. I invited them for a chat - they seemed happy with this and agreed a programme that involved mentoring and coaching in line with performance-management procedures. So you can imagine how shocked I was to learn that they had accused me of bullying. I am very upset that they did not say anything to me before making a complaint and I am worried I will not be able to do anything about their performance without being called a bully.

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit says: "Managing other people's performance is a legitimate part of your job. As long as you have done this fairly and according to policy, you should have nothing to worry about. You should, however, appreciate that being told you are not performing well is stressful for the member of staff.

"First of all, make sure that you address any issues in the appropriate way. Do your very best not to lose your temper or gossip about their shortcomings, but discuss each problem in turn before agreeing a course of action. Make sure that they understand and agree with what you discuss - it needs to be a two-way conversation.

"Second, praise them as often as you can - it is very easy for conversations to be negative.

"Finally, try to keep communication channels open. It may be that this staff member did not feel able to tell you at the time how they felt. You may want to ask if your manner is as approachable as you believe it is."

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "It is important to remember that although you do not see your actions as bullying, and however appropriate your actions may appear, this person feels bullied. It is understandable why they may not have felt able to raise their complaint with you.

"If you have not already done so, write down what happened and ensure that you keep copies of any e-mail correspondence. It is also important to double-check your performance-manage-ment procedures to ensure that the actions you have taken are in accordance with them. You should also check your institution's harassment policy for guidance.

"While the complaint is outstanding we would expect alternative provision to be made for the performance management of this member of staff and we would expect reasonable adjustments to working arrangements.

"It is important that procedures for hearing complaints are followed and time limits adhered to. It is also a good idea to seek advice from your local trade union representative, who can accompany you to any meetings."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "It is understandable that this unexpected complaint came as a shock to you because your initial approach in discussing the issues with the member of staff seems appropriate. However, your institution will now investigate the complaint, so you should concentrate on how you are going to address the situation. You will need to be able to demonstrate that you were attempting to address the individual's poor performance in an objective and supportive way and in line with performance-management procedures.

"Hopefully, you will have a clear record of your discussion, including details of the mentoring and coaching programme, and evidence regarding the individual's performance shortfalls that you referred to. You will need to present as many facts relating to the individual as you can to enable your institution to decide what action to take."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, 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. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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