Universities must ensure the safety and well-being of their academics

Universities must ensure the safety and well-being of their academics
Some universities are using gagging orders on academics to stop grievances becoming public. Source: Shutterstock

What happens when an organisation prioritises protecting its reputation over an issue that impairs the well-being of its staff? That’s one predicament UK universities, who have been implicated for the widespread issuing of “gagging orders”, now have to grapple with.

BBC News recently revealed that dozens of academics were “harassed” out of their jobs and made to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) after making complaints about bullying, discrimination and sexual misconduct allegations to prevent them from becoming public.

While bullying or harassment is nothing new in academia, that doesn’t mean it’s right.

Breaking their silence

Speaking to the BBC, Amy (not her real name) said she was bullied for six years across two universities by the same man who undermined her confidence and told her she would never enjoy a successful career. She said this sparked her depression and crippled her career. Amy was advised to sign an NDA and leave after filing a complaint.

“A source close to the settlement process, who has overseen a number of maternity and disability discrimination cases, said their university had a fund to get rid of staff with ‘significant health problems’,” said the BBC.

Meanwhile, award-winning astrophysicist Emma Chapman, who said she was sexually harassed by a man at University College London, received a £70,000 payout after a two-year legal challenge. Chapman refused to sign an NDA in favour of a confidentiality waiver, and continued to be harassed after her tribunal – she received untraceable voicemails of a person laughing down the phone in the middle of the night.

The report found that UK universities have spent nearly £90m on payoffs that come with “gagging clauses” to staff in the past two years, but notethat many universities were unable to disclose why the agreements were signed. This makes it unclear how many relate to allegations of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct.

Universities must do more to protect staff

Speaking to The Guardian, Universities UK (UUK) said universities use NDAs for a variety of reasons, including to protect information on research, but that they should not be exploited to silence victims.

While universities can legitimately use NDAs to protect themselves and their ideas, UUK added, “we also expect senior leaders to make it clear that the use of confidentiality clauses to prevent victims from speaking out will not be tolerated. All staff and students are entitled to a safe experience at university and all universities have a duty to ensure this outcome.”

Meanwhile, a 2014 report in The Guardian noted that universities have a legal obligation to protect employees from bullying. In an interview with Mark Leach, a higher education specialist at Weightmans Solicitors, he said concepts like bullying and harassment aren’t easy to describe.

But generally, within an employment context, the term bullying tends to describe unwanted and offensive behaviour on the part of an employee, and often, this behaviour is directed towards someone less senior.

Helen Wildman, Pro Vice-Chancellor for HR at the University of Wolverhampton said that in most instances, people are encouraged to speak to their line manager, unless deemed inappropriate, in which case they should go to human resources.

Victims are also encouraged to keep a diary of incidents and take note from witnesses, if any.

The need to step up

Universities have a duty to not only care about the well-being of students but also their staff. The well-being of one person should not be eclipsed by another; using NDAs to resolve harassment or bullying cases is merely wielding one’s power to snuff out careers and turn victims’ lives upside down.

It’s unfair for academics to fall out with the department as a result of being a victim of bullying or harassment, or to handle problems that arise from working alongside their perpetrators, who some universities seem to want to ‘protect’. Universities must build an environment where staff can make bullying or harassment complaints – without fear or judgement – to prevent it from becoming normalised or ingrained within the working culture.

Universities more concerned for their reputation than the well-being of their staff are merely failing their employees, students and ultimately, themselves.

As institutions that educate the next generation of leaders, they need to set an example of good practice.

When such incidences occur, universities could prevent them from reoccurring by conducting self-reviews and plans of action following the review, in addition to increasing support for mental health-related services for staff.

Gagging orders may be the quick, unethical way to silence people who have been wronged, but in the end, they will likely come back to haunt them.

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