Blog Confidential: Ms Insensitivity

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online

June 17, 2010

This week: Ms Insensitivity

A new academic head has just started in our department after a long period where we had a "leader" who, in essence, treated us like adults. We all knew what work needed to be done and most of us did more than our 37 hours per week. Over the years, many in our team would experience a major life crisis - family bereavement, divorce and so on - so occasionally some staff filled in for others. We all took responsibility and it was remarkable how well things worked.

The department head post was advertised externally (no one here wanted the position), and it went to an academic who is aged 38 and seemingly rather dynamic. She's been here only a week and I think has managed to upset everyone in the team with her whirlwind approach to everything. Hyperactivity seems to be her default position. Within the first few days, she saw all staff and requested our research plans and work schedule each week. She wants to know where we are at every minute of the day and, if she cannot find us, dispatches emails (copying in personnel).

I had a confrontation with her towards the end of the week. I was in the post room discussing some issues with a colleague when she burst in and asked whether we had anything better to do than to "stand around all day". I went to her room and attempted, tactfully, to raise my concerns about her insensitivity. She saw this as a challenge to take part in some sort of duel. She told me that she did not feel this department was the place for slackers, qualifying this by stating that I had been off work earlier in the year and I needed to "get real". I was off work because I had experienced an adverse psychological reaction to my mother's death - a normal part of bereavement ... or so I thought.

I was completely shocked and hurt by her offensive remarks and I feel I want to formalise some sort of complaint. Mediation has been suggested by a colleague but everyone is sick to death of her brash insensitivity and her seeming desire to oust all of us from the department.

Formalising any complaint through grievance procedures invariably results in some sort of backlash on the aggrieved. You state that many of your departmental colleagues are unhappy - but don't expect to receive support from them if you go through grievance procedures as it often disappears when the going gets tough.

I think mediation might be a good alternative. It will be with a trained facilitator who will be very skilled and sensitive in their approach. Part of the task of the mediator will be to slow this person down to "meet you halfway" and to make her understand the problems that you and your colleagues have with her management style. Document everything, find out who your allies are and speak to the union. I really think that your desire for grievance procedures is overreacting. Think about it.

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