First annual report: 85 cases, mostly about (impending) conflicts with the boss
MAASTRICHT. Poor or no communication, managers who are not capable of doing their jobs, unfair treatment. These all contribute towards a work environment that feels unsafe and unpleasant, Maastricht University’s ombudsman concluded in her first annual report. Between February 2019 and August 2020, she received 85 cases from UM employees who had problems. In most cases, it was about existing or impending conflicts with their superiors. In particular PhD candidates frequently find themselves in a tight corner.
Those conflicts are about supervision, assessment, contracts, reintegration after illness, co-operation, overtime and stress, type of treatment, and giving feedback. In every case, the Maastricht ombudsman (and lawyer) Anna Soedira deals with it face-to-face, first with the person making the complaint and subsequently – if they consent to it – with others involved; in order to get a clearer picture of the problem, to see if it is possible to de-escalate the situation and whether mediation is an option. In the period of one year (February 2019 to February 2020), she had 385 talks.
Her annual report covers a longer period, until August 2020. First some figures: the majority of those 85 persons who reported a problem, are female (58) and members of the administrative and support staff (OBP: 61). The complaints relate to the Faculties of Health Medicine and Life Sciences (mainly PhD candidates), the School of Business and Economics, the Student Services Centre, Facility Services, UM Sports, and ICTS. Some of the problems are individual ones, but a larger number of cases appear eventually to be a “more general issue between one or more people in a department, service or faculty”. Some cases are still ongoing, most of them have been solved, sometimes positively for everyone, sometimes not.
An important point is the way in which parties communicate, or rather, fail to do so. “The way an employee is treated, can then become unfair. This is what I see happening regularly at the UM,” Soedira writes. She describes the UM as a hierarchal organisation with “strong dependency relations,” in which it is not done to call on others to account for their behaviour. “This failure to discuss ‘problems’ or doing so too late leads to a culture in which people look the other way – both managers and employees – in undesirable situations.” To continue: not communicating, not daring to communicate or not knowing how to; such things do not contribute towards a “safe and pleasant work environment”.
Lack of “conscious leadership”
Many problems arise as a result of leaders, she continues. “I have established that there is a lack of conscious leadership within the UM: you can only lead well if you know yourself, your shortcomings and your vulnerabilities.” More training in effective leadership is important, she concludes. In doing so, focus on listening properly to the person you are talking with, reacting productively and professionally to criticism and feedback, giving feedback effectively, dealing productively with conflicts/clashes of interests, and strengthening the feeling of solidarity. She refers to the “system” that is prevalent within the UM and that causes someone who does well in a particular job, to be automatically promoted to a leadership position. The one does not guarantee the other, she warns.
By the way, this is not the first time that the topic of lack of leadership is raised. It has been referred to repeatedly in the annual reports by the confidential advisor. The leadership courses that the UM organises, apparently have not yielded results everywhere (yet).
In the meantime, Soedira is consulted by a number of leaders if something is up or may be about to happen. “I feel that the preventive action that comes from that, is one of the most important tasks of the ombudsman.”
“The combination of a hierarchal structure, dependency relations, leadership that is not always capable, and lack of effective communication” has a huge influence on how people treat each other. It creates a “socially unsafe climate in which employees don’t dare to say much, or even anything at all, to their superiors or colleagues.” Especially PhD candidates, who, more so than other employees, are dependent on their supervisors, are “continuously” confronted by this. Soedira points out that she has only had ten such cases on her desk, but from this small group, she heard that many more PhD candidates are in the same boat but dare not come forward.
She also refers to the foreign employees. Diversity and inclusivity go further than the introduction of the English language, she writes. “Even though language barriers can be a source of conflict or impending conflict, I see that the way in which internationals are treated leads to conflict more easily because of the cultural differences present and in particular the lack of awareness about those differences. For example, it is “not right” for an international university that its formal complaints procedure for undesirable behaviour “can only be carried out in Dutch”. The ombudsman feels that this should be done in English. The interpreter that the UM is now prepared to pay for, is “not an adequate solution”.
Last but not least, she mentions the role of HR. “In difficult situations, employees feel that HR is only there for the managers and not for them.” This can further increase feelings of anxiety and unsafety. “All the more so when the required information from HR appears to be incorrect or incomplete.”
Better, healthier and safer
On one of the last pages, Anna Soedira writes that her report should not be seen as “negative criticism” on those things that are not up to scratch or what is wrong within the UM. It would be better to see it as an instigation of how the academic community could become “better, safer and healthier” and to which the ombudsman can make a contribution.
Each and every one would benefit from a clear overview of all the bodies within the UM to which they can turn with their complaints, such as the ombudsman, confidential advisors across the UM, within departments, confidential advisor for academic integrity, HR department. As well as a clear overview of all regulations on the website.
University Council committee
This appeal for a proper overview, so that people don’t lose their way in complaints procedures, was widely supported during a University Council committee meeting last week. “It is confusing, you don’t know where to turn with your question,” said Pia Harbers, council member on behalf of OBP. “It is a problem for staff as well as for students.”
Rector Rianne Letschert agreed: “We are going to work on that. I have asked the ombudsman, the confidential advisor and someone from HR to look for a solution. I hope that by the beginning of 2021, I can submit a proposal.” And not only that: “We will also look into follow-up care, because that could actually be improved too. I would also like to know if we have enough manpower, (0.5 FTE for the ombudsman, 0.5 FTE for the confidential advisor for staff, 0.2 FTE for the confidential advisor for students, ed.). I will look into how things are at other universities.”
And as far as the critical notes on leadership are concerned, the University Council committee also agreed. Letschert: “Leadership at universities must really improve. Prevention is the key. But I am not naive, this won’t just take a year to fix.”
What does an ombudsman do?
The UM ombudsman (‘man’ is not a gender indication, the word comes from Swedish, in which case ‘man’ in compounds stands for ‘person’) started on 1 February 2019 at the initiative from Lokaal Overleg. She deals - most of the time - with existing or impending conflicts between staff members and their superiors.
She can – with the approval of the employee – carry out independent research, start mediation, and give independent advice to the Executive Board, which can subsequently intervene. This is contrary to the confidential advisor, who focuses on complaints regarding undesirable behaviour and by definition is on the side of the person who submits the complaint and has no research authority and (contrary to the ombudsman) has no right to information.
The UM participated in a trial project entitled ‘University Ombuds Position’ with three other universities. The evaluation has led to the decision by all universities to appoint an ombudsman no later than 2021.