Bullied Blogger: An offer the university cannot refuse

May 12, 2009

11 May: My academic post now seems lost for ever. I have been in contact with a solicitor, Debbie Smith, who specialises in employment law. She has been quite clear with me and has given me three alternatives:

1. Just resign and end it. No charge for her time.

2. Negotiate a severance agreement now, with a reference and a small payoff. The university and I would sign a confidentiality agreement.

3. Opt for a long drawn-out affair and fight for a few years, maybe get to an industrial tribunal and win a bigger settlement.

These options are clear and rational. However, part of me wants Marcus and Helen to be punished for what they have done to me, but there is no mechanism to do so. The grievance hearing has been a travesty: the organisation defended its senior staff, which blocked any possibility of transparency. I want a magic wand that conjures up clips of the critical incidents on a DVD recording of Marcus and Helen; I want to show how Marcus dumped more work on me, how he and Helen planted the idea in external agencies that I was a problem. I want to play back, pause and make comments to explain my downfall.

But Dominic (my partner), Clive (the union representative) and Debbie all explain that there would probably be little opportunity to confront Marcus and Helen, anyway. Even if the case went to a final hearing, the university could say at the end that there was “no case to answer”, agree a payoff and end it. All that anxiety, waiting for my day in court, and they would still play their games with a loaded dice.

I’m over a barrel. Do I have to play along? It’s Catch 22, it’s Great Expectations in reverse-nightmare mode and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’m Winston Smith and one plus one equals three. Bastards. If I try to go back they will sack me, if I just resign they can openly discredit me, and if I fight all the way they will turn around at the last minute and work out an agreement.

I have terrible dreams. I see my world falling apart, I see Marcus and Helen with the team laughing and waving a P45 in my face. I wake up in a cold sweat, my heart pounding. I cannot breathe.

I receive two more emails of support from unknown sources. They suggest that I start a website, discredit the university and consider “direct action”. I show them to Debbie. She has lots of experience in these matters and warns that it could be a snare, a trap to catch me out and discredit me still further. I take no action and do not reply.

After a long discussion with Dominic, I opt to work out the best possible agreement Debbie can come up with. She says she will approach Mazy Milligan, the head of human resources. Debbie drafts a letter and sends it to me. She points out several important issues:

1. That my career pre-Marcus was exemplary.

2. That since he started, there have been several clear examples of his attempting to undermine me.

3. The university paid no attention to the stress I was under.

4. There are examples of where research was taken from me without any discussion or reasons given.

Debbie suggests to the university I am “ill” and this would be the focal point if we went to tribunal or court. She explains in explicit terms the organisation’s failure in its duty of care. The letter flows with threats in the nicest possible way.

Within an hour there is a response – an offer to settle for a sum below the figure Debbie has suggested. I say: “OK, go with it”; she says “no” – there are rituals to be observed.

She sends a response and within ten minutes there is another call. YES. AGREED. Debbie points out that this is a very good deal for the university: that is why it snapped it up. She asks me to write my own reference for the university to consider. Included in the agreement is a reference it has to give to any future employer.

It all seems crazy to me. I could be the worst lecturer in the world, I could be a very incompetent person, but I would still get a severance agreement. But I’m not. I loved my job with a passion now lost to me. I so enjoyed seeing my students learn. In my chosen field I made a national contribution. It is all gone for ever? Will I get another job? Is there an old-boys’ network… a phone call here, a message there… will Marcus and Helen still play a part in my future? I have no idea.

Are you experiencing problems at work?

Whether it’s money worries, issues with colleagues or emotional difficulties, the College and University Support Network (CUSN) can help. CUSN provides free, confidential support services, 24/7, specifically for all staff working in adult, further and higher education. Established by Teacher Support Network and supported by the University and College Union, CUSN offers information and advice, telephone counselling, online and telephone coaching and financial assistance. All CUSN services are delivered by professional advisers, counsellors and coaches. You can contact CUSN for free on 08000 32 99 52 or visit www.cusn.info, where you can also sign up for the free monthly newsletter.

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