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AcademicFOI.com reveals staff bullying figures

The front page article appearing in the printed edition of this week’s Badger (31/01/11) is inaccurate. Though it quotes the university in full, the headline and the first two paragraphs are misrepresentative and therefore a full retraction article will appear in next week’s issue.

A new report has found that the University of Sussex has conducted four formal investigations between the years 2007-2009 into incidents of staff bullying according to the most recent findings of AcademicFOI.com.

A project made up of a small group of volunteers, AcademicFOI.com, investigates higher education institutions in the UK using the Freedom of Information Act.

Their recent report looks at workplace bullying and harassment at UK universities, across the period between 1 January 2007 and 31 December 2009. Each of the four members of staff who asked for support and advice identified their perpetrators as being their superior, but not a member of the senior executive team.

The report found that 123 out of over 2,200 members of staff at the University of Sussex have attended workshops or awareness-raising sessions. Topics covered included bullying and harassment, amongst other issues. The University of Sussex commented on the findings explaining that “the University has a clear and detailed policy to prevent harassment and bullying at work.

“That makes clear that Sussex is fully committed to the principles of equal opportunities in the workplace and regards personal harassment as a discriminatory and unacceptable form of behaviour.

“The policy makes clear that if staff experience harassment at work they will be given the full support of the University in putting a stop to that harassment.

“Staff have a number of options to enable them to deal with harassment, ranging from simply indicating that the behaviour is unacceptable to making a formal complaint through the established Grievance Procedure.”

AcademicFOI found that no staff at the university left citing bullying or harassment.

The Freedom of Information request shows that only 11 percent of instances where staff had mentioned bullying and harassment to staff welfare ultimately led to a formal investigation under the harassment policy.

For cases upheld, the average  figure is 23 percent, while there is a lower figure of 19 percent within the 1994 Group of which Sussex is a member. At the University of Sussex, zero percent of cases are upheld.

The University of Sussex said: “The 36 cases referred to in the FOI represent the number staff over three years who “mentioned harassment and/ or bullying” to staff welfare.

That does not mean this was their primary or sole concern in contacting staff welfare, nor does it indicate that 36 instances of bullying or harassment had occurred.

“The four investigations represent the number of staff over those four years who ultimately made a complaint through the grievance procedure, as set out in the policy.  Where staff wished to make a complaint we would have undertaken appropriate steps under the policy.”

In addition to the bullying and harassment findings, AcademicFOI.com also looked at employment tribunal claims and gagging clauses from the last three years at UK universities.

They found that five current or former staff at the University of Sussex submitted claims to the employment tribunal service.
The five claims were settled before the hearing date of each and a total figure of £38,000 has been paid out in the settlements.

With regards to legal costs, the university said: “During the period in question the university did not account for legal fees in such a specific way; instead all fees were charged to a single central code. The breakdown of the sum that was requested in the FOI is therefore not held.”

The university added: “The information in the FOI suggests that, compared to other universities, Sussex has had a relatively small number of claims – with 5 submitted to the employment tribunal service over 3 years – and that it has taken reasonable and appropriate steps to manage those claims.

Claims settled before they reach court are done so without any admission of liability.”

All of the cases included a non-disclosure – commonly referred to as ‘gagging’ – clause in the terms of the settlement.

A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is an agreement that restricts both the individual and the university involved from discussing a certain matter in public.

A spokesperson for AcademicFOI.com commented on the use of NDAs: “The main justification for using NDAs in resolving employment disputes is that both individuals and universities can put disputes behind them and move on with their reputations intact.

Frequent reference is made by universities to this being standard practice both within and outside higher education. There have however been 64 instances over the last 3 years where settlements have not included NDAs so whilst the practice is common, it is by no means universal.”

Over the past three years 12 current or former staff have signed one of these agreements in relation to confidentiality of research activities.

AcademicFOI added that: “In research work the rationale for NDAs is to preserve the commercial confidentiality of the research client or the commercial confidentiality of the university itself in securing that research project.”

The report estimates that across the UK, 1,957 staff members asked for support or advice due to bullying and harassment between 2007 and 2009. From this number, only 998 formal investigations were made into formal complaints.

However, only 234 investigations were upheld with 764 concluding that no bullying or harassment had taken place.
Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London, the top three in the Times Higher Education World Rankings, had a high number of complaints upheld with 54 percent.

Forty-one institutions had a zero percentage rate for complaints upheld including the universities of Brighton, Bristol and Westminster.

In the process to complete the report, which took over eight months, more than one university threatened the group with criminal prosecution and breach of copyright proceedings.

Three universities, Stranmillis UC, Goldsmiths and Coventry, failed to respond to the group.

Thirteen universities of the 132 universities and higher education institutions did not respond in full to the questionnaire including City, Nottingham, Glasgow and Bristol.

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