Morale boost bid backfires

November 17, 2006

Sheffield Hallam's plan to improve relations in its law department has had the opposite effect. Phil Baty reports

Sheffield Hallam University has taken the unusual step of bringing in an external mediator to try to boost morale after relations in one of its departments hit rock bottom.

But some staff claim that the unusual move has made the situation worse.

According to a series of confidential documents leaked to The Times Higher , there are serious concerns in Sheffield Hallam University's law department about professional and academic working relationships, internal relationships and dynamics, relationships with senior management and relationships between the department and the student body/other stakeholders.

At a staff meeting held recently, David Woodhill, head of the law department, said that the university was "aware of difficulties around professional boundaries, for example with students".

In a bid to resolve some of the difficulties, the department stepped outside the formal grievance framework and called on Liz Rick, a retired former senior member of staff at Sheffield Hallam, to act as a "facilitator" in discussions.

Unfortunately, the move backfired, as Dr Rick's appointment caused considerable suspicion and disquiet among some staff. One member of staff, who asked not to be named, said: "It is meant to be helping to restore relations and improve morale, but it is having the opposite effect.

"It is highly divisive. People have been asked to name colleagues who they feel are not 'professional' and to pass on gossip. No one trusts the motives, and people feel it is a secretive investigation - they are out to get dirt on staff."

Sylvia Johnson, the acting executive dean of the faculty of development and society, told staff about the process in an e-mail in mid-October. She said there would be a meeting "to discuss a programme of staff development and change".

According to official notes of that meeting, held on October 18, Professor Woodhill explained that concerns had been identified about "the dynamics and internal health of the department".

Professor Woodhill is recorded as saying that subject-group meetings "have not always gone smoothly".

The notes continue: "Law is valued highly by the faculty and the university, and David Woodhill and Sylvia Johnson have decided to invest in development with the group, to address issues that might currently be preventing it from reaching its full potential."

Professor Woodhill is reported as saying that Dr Rick, who was previously director of Sheffield Hallam's School of Sport and Leisure Management, will work with the group between now and December and that her role will be "initially to listen and discuss the nature of these issues with you".

He said at the meeting: "I simply urge you to respect the normal ground rules for communications - politeness and respect for one another, openness and frankness in discussions, confidentiality as discussed before, and that you focus on looking forward and developing the department for a stronger future.

"It is important that these discussions are taken seriously - there is much at stake - but that no one feels judged or threatened in the process."

But the reaction of some staff to the first meeting with Dr Rick late last month was not positive. Staff reported that they had to write what they liked and disliked about their work on Post-it Notes, and had to list reasons for not wanting to come into work.

Staff are being interviewed individually by Dr Rick this week.

A spokeswoman for Sheffield Hallam said: "Following consultation with the trade unions, we have brought in a facilitator to support the department in focusing on how it worked, both as a team and with outside stakeholders.

The process aims to strengthen the team to help it maximise opportunities for future growth and development.

"We recognise that problems and issues can occur within any organisation, and we are committed to taking positive action and tackling these in a sensitive and appropriate way as they arise.

"This is a staff development issue, not a formal procedure. But we have worked hard to ensure that all staff are aware of the process, its purpose and where to go for any further support.

"All discussions, both individual and collective, will remain confidential within the team."

A spokesman for the University and College Union said that it was consulted on the approach being taken, and had no objections to what was an informal process.

It is highly divisive. People have been asked to name colleagues who they feel are not "professional" and to pass on gossip. No one trusts the motives, and people feel it is a secretive investigation - they are out to get dirt on staff

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