Some common themes emerged from our researchers’ accounts of their experiences of bullying and harassment at work.
On 15 November 2021 we launched an initiative called Amplify. We were inspired by the website Everyone’s Invited which collects and publishes the stories of students who have suffered sexual assault and harassment. The Amplify site was hosted by CREDS and allowed people to post anonymous accounts of bullying and harassment at work.
We wanted to find out about the experiences of our research community, to learn both the good and the bad about our work cultures. We also wanted to provide a space for people to share their thoughts in confidence.
The site remained open for submissions for 10 months, and we published a wide variety of accounts from several paragraphs long, to just a few words.
Whilst the accounts were all personal and unique, there were some themes which emerged.
Lack of support
One of the key issues described was the lack of support felt by individuals who attempt to raise complaints of bullying and harassment. People are of course required to use the grievance procedures of their institutions, and a common complaint was that victims felt let down and unsupported in the process. There was a view that HR departments did not make the complainant feel supported or ease the emotional difficulty in any way. Across the stories, it was clear that there is an unmet need for employees to have someone outside of their immediate team or institution to offer this support. That it does not come from HR is not really surprising; the operation of HR as the employee welfare department, on hand with the box of tissues and a pat on the shoulder is most firmly in the past. Modern Human Resources is part of the management structure of an organisation, acting to guide and protect the interests of the organisation.
Union representatives could provide support to individuals navigating bullying and harassment processes. However, bringing in a union representative may not be possible or desirable for some, or as one contributor put it ‘a complete waste of time’.
Another theme which clearly emerged was the sense of powerlessness experienced by the bullied person. Raising a complaint can be seen as ‘career limiting’ in an environment where personal networks count for so much. Many accounts described how, in their experience, the university seeks to preserve and protect reputation and will shelter senior people, particularly those responsible for bringing in funding and prestige. This leads to a sense of isolation and powerlessness for the complainant who feels that the only real option is to put up with the situation or leave.
What can we learn?
The Amplify project invited people to approach us with their accounts and we cannot draw conclusions about the prevalence of bullying in our research community. We were glad to see that we were not inundated with testimonies of bad behaviour. There were also some notes of optimism in the submissions; exhortations to not give up as well as good advice about keeping notes and not suffering in silence.
That said, we should not be complacent and any experiences of bullying in our workplaces diminishes the opportunities for all.
What can be done?
Changing work cultures can be difficult, particularly with the academic environment being hierarchically structured around key individuals.
No single lever can be pulled to fix bullying. There is little evidence to show that workplace anti-bullying training is effective (Gillen et al, 2017). Those that bully rarely view their own behaviour in those terms, and quite happily participate in such training initiatives content in the knowledge that it applies to the person seated next to them.
Institutions can write policies but processes will be difficult for people to access without fear of jeopardising their careers and reputations.
Perhaps the only way of really changing the power imbalance described in many of the accounts is to make a clearer link for university institutions between funding and healthy working cultures. Funders now routinely require statements or commitments to EDI. Perhaps the success of research projects should be explicitly rated on welfare measures; the number of bullying or misconduct complaints raised in the life of a project, in a department or against a person applying to be a PI.
We don’t want to create cultures of denunciation and fear, but valuing leadership and the ability to get the best out of team members should be as important as technical brilliance, research impact and the ability to pull in funding. That might be a new way to help eliminate workplace bullying in our sector.
Banner photo credit: Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash