We are at a cultural institution, but our tone is not always cultured

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As a new initiative, the psychological WPA 2016 included a question on whether employees had been subjected to repeated abusive, offensive or derogatory speech. Six per cent have. Corresponding to 350 employees.

2016.05.31 | Marie Groth Andersen, Lea Laursen Pasgaard & Lotte Bilberg

Graphics: Astrid Reitzel

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen has several times urged that there should be a soberer tone among employees, most recently in connection with the internal problem analysis. But even though he is aware of a hard tone in certain cases, he was surprised by the scope of the problem when he read the new psychological WPA.

At AU, six per cent of employees have found themselves repeatedly being addressed in an abusive and derogatory tone. However, the figure varies considerably across the university. 

"I must admit that I wasn’t aware that it was so widespread," says Bech Nielsen.

He believes that treating one another with respect ought to be a fundamental value at the university.

"You’re here because the university has chosen to employ you, so you also have a right to the respect of your colleagues and managers."

Abusive tone not previously on the agenda

As was the case with the previous psychological WPA, employees were again asked about bullying and harassment. But this time they were also asked about their experience of the daily communication and its tone at AU. The question was introduced during the consultation process for the WPA questionnaire at the university.

Neither bullying, harassment or an abusive tone should be part of everyday life at a university, emphasises Bech Nielsen.

"It’s completely unacceptable, even though we’re not talking about outrageously high percentages. It has to be stopped, and if management becomes aware of it, they must intervene. But the most effective way to deal with this is to have zero-tolerance among the employees – where they actually object if they witness it taking place," says the rector.

He acknowledges that the figures for bullying and harassment are more or less unchanged in relation to the last WPA, even though the senior management team also at the time made it clear that there was zero tolerance when it comes to bullying and harassment.

Stand up and be counted

"I think we’ve all gone and said a bit too much at one time or another. When you end up saying something you shouldn’t to someone. But then it’s a question of standing up and being counted and saying to the other person: I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”

The administrative centres stand out in the statistics

One place where employees have most often been repeatedly subjected to an abusive tone is the administration. With its eight per cent compared to AU’s average of six per cent, it generally lies above the AU average, while certain administrative centres stand out in the statistics. Centres where the proportion is as high as ten or eleven per cent.

Several examples of a hard management style

As the joint union representative for members of technical and administrative staff (AC-TAP, ed.) in the administration, Anders Kragh Moestrup has also noticed that the employees are more often subject to a harsh tone.

"Because it's a big workplace, I don’t know the reasons behind individual cases. But as a union representative I know about places in the administration where the employees experience a hard style of management," says Moestrup.

It has improved since the last WPA, but according to the union representative employees in administration are still subject to harsh criticism from the academic environments.

"It can be a thankless task to visit the environments to present a new IT system. Some people find themselves in the firing line for personal criticism, when they’re just the messengers for decisions from above."

Constructive communication is also a management task

In his opinion, the issue of abusive communication and tone should be dealt with locally. He also underlines that he believes responsibility for focusing on how we talk to one another at AU lies with the senior management team. So that, as is the case with bullying and sexual harassment, we do not accept an abusive tone.

"We need to talk properly to each other and respect each other for the various tasks that we have. This is true of the relationship between academic staff on the one side and technical and administrative staff on the other, but equally between management and employees," he emphasises.

Those on the frontline left with the problem

Joint union representative for the National Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees (HK), Helle Colding Seiersen, fully agrees with Anders Kragh Moestrup.

“It’s us on the frontline who are left with the problem because we’re the ones who must explain the consequences of management decisions.”

The fact that the wrong people are in the firing line is particularly pronounced in cases where communication has not trickled down through the system.

"Then we’re the ones who must explain that the level of service has been reduced a little because of cutbacks,” she says.

Hear a bit of everything

But most places in the administration have also experienced cases where colleagues lose their temper due to frustration.

"You can take us here in AU Student Administration and Services as an example. We hear a bit of everything if a student has his or her grant halted or is thrown out of the university. The same can be true for an employee in the finance department who has the task of telling a member of academic staff that he or she cannot overuse an account for entertainment expenses, or that they have not filled in a travel expense report," explains Seiersen.

Figures got the attention of the university director

The figures for the number of employees who have experienced abuse also worry University Director Arnold Boon.

"It certainly got my attention. That’s why it’s one of the joint topics that we will continue to work on in the administration. One the one hand, how to ensure constructive communication in the individual departments, but also how we can ensure good communication and tone between the users and the administration," he says.

The administration under pressure

He is not aware of the specific examples that the figures cover, but points out that the administration has been under pressure over the past few years.

"But there must be good communication and a proper tone, and I will ask the individual deputy directors and administrative centre managers how they are working on this. But I’m not going to present strategies or solutions. The individual departments have to deal with the issues," says the university director.

Constructive communication is one of the four work environment themes recommended for local follow-up work in connection with the WPA by the senior management team, the Main Liaison Committee (HSU) and the Main Occupational Health and Safety Committee (HAMU).

Translated by Peter Lambourne 

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