How Best to Tackle Bullying?

How can we make the university sector a more pleasant place to work? Bullying and harassment (whether of a sexual nature or not) are, it would appear, endemic across the higher education sector, for staff and students alike. Every survey highlights the issue as a major problem, deterring many from continuing in the path they had set their heart on and perhaps expended many years of effort in an attempt to find their niche. Both Amanda Solloway, the Science Minister, and Ottoline Leyser, as CEO of UKRI, have placed research culture prominently in their respective agendas, although that phrase obviously encompasses far more than these behavioural aspects, most notably extending to the precarity of employment endured by many early career researchers.

Universities need to find ways of ensuring that that those at the receiving end of unacceptable behaviour feel confident in the system available to them to come forward and report abuse and, equally, that offenders are identified and sanctioned appropriately. I fear few institutions would currently have confidence their processes satisfy either of those statements, even if they have plenty of optimistic sentences on their websites.

The University of Cambridge has launched a new ‘Change the Culture’ strategy today, with the aim of moving this agenda forward within the University. The full policy runs to many pages of definitions and detailed steps to be undertaken, but the key points are simple enough:

  • A new, confidential reporting system (Report and Support) where any staff member or student can report inappropriate behaviour of other staff or students either anonymously or formally with contact details. By collecting data and anonymous case studies it will be possible to get a better idea of what is going on.
  • The University has had for many years a so-called Dignity at Work policy, and this will be morphing into the new staff Mutual Respect Policy and Code of Behaviour. No one should be any doubt about the University’s expectations around behaviour.
  • Grievance Policies will be stream-lined to provide clearer and quicker process for resolving incidents of inappropriate behaviour. Alongside this there will be enhanced support services for those who have either experienced or exhibited inappropriate behaviour and new staff training resources.

This is all well and good, but of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Time will tell how well these new policies work. I believe the ‘Breaking the Silence’ campaign, launched here four years ago, has had some significant impact across the University as regards the incidence, reporting and handling of sexual harassment cases. A more recent campaign has provided bystander training specifically aimed at students, teaching them how and when to intervene, in particular with regard to such sexual harassment and assault. I attended one of the training sessions and was tremendously impressed by the thought-provoking films, demonstrating where intervention could have made all the difference. For student attendees the initial briefing was followed by role plays, so that they could practice different ways of stepping in before matters got out of hand.

Practice in such situations does indeed make perfect, and I’m sure we could all practice intervention to good effect when it comes to the more minor but intensely damaging types of bullying that too often goes on. As I’ve said before, observing bullying and doing nothing amounts to being complicit. Of course gender may sometimes play a part – too often young girls are taught not to be confrontational however shocking the behaviour they are facing – but bullying can just as well be carried out on males, by both men and women. Whatever the new University policy does and does not say, it really is down to all of us to ensure that there is zero tolerance for unacceptable behaviour.

I have written often enough about bullying in the past, most notably here, where I followed up on a piece I had written in the Guardian. Any policy will stand or fall on whether people feel safe coming forward to report behaviour. Too often I have been approached by people – typically staff – who feel that, even if they have complained to their line manager, their grievances have not been adequately addressed. Usually these people are not complaining about a single instance of someone losing their rag or behaving aggressively towards them, but long-running and systematic demeaning behaviour which undermines the individual’s confidence and ability to act. There is always the suspicion that the powers-that-be will support the more established individual, perhaps the one with the big reputation who brings in the funding. Those at the receiving end of bullying can end up feeling they are dispensable and unimportant. Letting such behaviours continue, however, permits that toxic culture to persist.

So, I will watch with interest to see if this new policy turns out to have teeth. I certainly hope that it does. But, aside from individuals having the confidence to come forward, what will be done to perpetrators? As long as bullies find that bullying pays, they are not likely to change their ways. Does being sent to a speed awareness course make it less likely a driver will speed the next time they hit the motorway? I don’t know the answer to that, but if it does, is there any way of introducing ‘bullying awareness’ classes. Can we introduce the equivalent of points on a license – 6 points and you can’t be promoted for a year or two, say? Or (for full professors) not allowed to apply for any funding for twelve months? That would cause people to sit up and think, but I’m sure it’s a policy that would be hard to get through the requisite committees.

It seems to me, too often, investigations end up hurting the putative victim far more than the perpetrator and, if the new campaign is to work, that must change. Wellcome have introduced a policy whereby anyone with an allegation of bullying upheld against them may find their grant applications rejected. It would be good if other funders followed suit with something similar, because that kind of sanction is exactly the sort of thing that would directly impact on potential aggressors and might lead to a change in behaviour. I don’t know how many instances of this policy being implemented have been recorded. The only case that I’m aware of led to the resignation of the person concerned, a woman of colour. It strikes me as an unnatural coincidence that this is the case. Why was she singled out when it is hard to believe there weren’t white men who were at least as guilty? Is it simply that people are less likely to raise a complaint against that majority than a racialised minority?

Agreeing on the problem, and the scale of the problem, is insufficient to solve it. I will watch what happens as a result of today’s launch at the University of Cambridge with great interest and fingers crossed for real progress to be made.

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