Bullied Blogger: Kafkaesque days of menacing complexity

April 15, 2009

I am totally confused by what is happening. I am signed off sick by a concerned GP; I am suspended; I am taking out a grievance against my university; they are taking out a disciplinary action against me. I am forbidden to speak to anyone employed by my university – even in a social context. If this were a work of fiction it would fail to be published because a commissioning editor would never accept that a university could act in such an outrageous and bizarre way. Perhaps I should change my name to Winston Smith…

6 April: I am devastated by the comments made in MY grievance hearing. This was supposed to be my time to raise my concerns. The person chairing is meant to be impartial and give me time and space to air my concerns. I am suspended from work and cannot use my university email system, but I send a message to HR about the initial report and express my concerns:

“I am communicating with you to clarify the nature of the grievance. In the grievance guidelines it states it is my opportunity to express my concerns about issues that affect my work… However, I discover this is now some sort of assessment against me. I am enclosing the issues documented in MY grievance that discredit my name. If they are seen as major concerns, why have they never been raised with me?

They include:

• I do what I want

• I am constantly challenging with no reason

• I am oppressive and insensitive about the religion of others

• The changes to my workload were discussed on three occasions, as is clear from a document (which I have never seen) in the ‘appendix’

• The social services department suggested that I should not be involved in a research project

• Marcus had suggested on two occasions that I see occupational health because of his deep concern for my health – there is a letter attached to prove it

• I rarely work 35 hours a week

• I constantly turn down requests to help other staff who are overstretched

• I am disorganised in my work

• I am late giving exam marks in to administrators.”

I get a reply almost immediately: “You will have the opportunity to express your concerns at the next grievance hearing where Marcus and Helen will be available to answer your concerns along with the dean appointed to carry out the meeting. You should be aware that you are suspended and, as stated in previous correspondence, you cannot communicate with any staff at the university. A letter will shortly be sent inviting you to a pre-investigation hearing in relation to your recent behaviour.”

This feels unacceptable to me. It is as if a machine is at work, slowly responding to me in a way that is mechanised and almost brutal in its lack of care or concern. I have given several of the best years of my working life to this university. The approach seems contrived and intent on wearing me down. HR seems to have moved from “Hello, this is human resources, how can we help?” to a faceless and unpleasant bureaucracy giving nothing away. I am the unspoken enemy, and it feels like trench warfare. My union rep is away, I am irritated and fed up, I veer between different emotions – despair, anxiety, hopelessness and optimism that I am right in what I am doing. Dominic is anxious about my state of mind, but he is willing to let me communicate my concerns.

I dispatch an email to the union’s regional office: “Is there no way you can help?”

An email that doesn’t feel a lot different from the one I got from HR comes back. “You need to contact your local rep – we do not interfere with local disputes.”

I give up. I’ll wait until Colin gets back. The union seems riddled with procedures that seem to play into the hands of the way universities handle disputes.

8 April: A letter arrives about a pre-disciplinary investigation meeting.

“It is our understanding that on 23 March 2009 you sent an email to your ATL, the dean and the vice-chancellor that could be deemed offensive. Furthermore, you have been harassing HR staff over the way your grievance has been handled…”

I am furious at the way my concerns have been interpreted by HR. I dispatch a two-page email to them expressing my concerns over the lack of support they have given me and over their absurd interpretation of my emails…. “Is there no common sense in HR?” I ask.

As I dispatch this question I realise it was a mistake. It will be used against me. But how much more do I need to be incriminated for crimes against my university? It seems to me that these institutions are relatively passive until you start complaining or you have a line manager who takes a dislike to you. If you start barking back they can be venomous and vindictive. They have hierarchies steeped in intellectual elitism that seem to take a view that the machine is unquestionably correct. I read anti-bullying websites and discover that bullying in universities is rife. This does not help – I don’t want to become part of a hidden minority. It also seems that nothing changes and situations that seem terrible have little opportunity for reform. How ironic that organisations charged with ideas, innovation and challenge should be the most secretive and defensive.

Letters I have been sent since being suspended: nine; emails: 16. All negative, focusing on wearing me down.

10 April: I speculate on whether the people who dispatch these letters and emails have any idea of what I am going through. Do they consider whether, although they have a job to do, they could offer resources to support me through all of this? Or that it could be in their interest to give some independent offer of support? The union is available to give a perfunctory response along strict lines – surely the university realises that this barrage of communication is damaging my health?

I have made mistakes, and perhaps acted in ways that are inappropriate – but I would suggest this has only been in response to bad management, constant indifference, subtle ways of suggesting my work is irrelevant and overt attempts to give me the message that my contribution is not valued. If I were to do things differently, it would be to leave without any bitterness, with a smile and words of thanks and gratitude for giving me the opportunity of serving an academic institution for seven years – or would I? Would that have been the best way out?

I am isolated, psychologically exhausted and dismayed by what has happened. In these moments of severe doubt and uncertainty I feel it would have probably been best to rearrange my career and leave under the pretext of a “new beginning”.

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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