The rector “doesn’t know where that comes from”: there isn’t freedom of speech at AU, one in ten employees believes

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AU’s rector is pleased that the new WPA shows that stress is down, but he’s surprised that more than one in ten employees thinks that they aren’t free to express criticism in their workplace.

2019.04.11 | Lene Ravn

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen singles out a number of issues of concern in the results of the new WPA – feedback culture, a perception of a lack of freedom of speech and a two-fold increase in the number of employees who report bullying. Photo: Lars Kruse

Facts: WPA

The results of the most recent WPA are now available here.

The WPA covers both the physical and the psychological work environment at AU, and the response rate was 71 percent.

In Rector Bech Nielsen’s words, the result of the new WPA isn’t “flashing red lights and sirens”. 

“It looks fine, generally speaking, and AU’s results are marginally better than the average for other universities and university colleges,” he says.

The results of the survey of employee satisfaction and well-being are also in line with the last WPA from 2016. 

“But of course, there are still some issues,” the rector notes. 

One in ten believes that freedom of speech is under threat at AU

The rector is surprised that more employees than last time believe that they aren’t free to express critical points of view at Aarhus University. 

In 2016, six percent of employees stated that there was seldom or never freedom to express critical points of view.This year, eleven percent of the employees responded that they ‘disagree’ or ‘disagree completely’ that AU employees are free to express criticism. And 32 percent indicated that they neither agree nor disagree with the same statement.

Rector Bech Nielsen wasn’t anticipating this:

“I’m interested in why. Because I think we’ve spent a fair amount of energy on emphasizing the value of freedom – including freedom of research. And there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that there is freedom of speech at AU, and that the senior management team supports it. What’s behind the numbers is hard to say. There will always be some variation in the responses in a large organisation, but people shouldn’t feel that their freedom of speech is limited,” he says:

“Of course you can speak your mind freely –within the framework of freedom of expression. And in fact, I encourage this, because it’s best to get things out in the open. If you have a criticism, express it seriously and constructively. We all have to be able to handle criticism – including managers. And in all modesty, I think that we can.”

What do you think about the responses in light of the findings that came to light in the survey of freedom of research?

“I have a hard time seeing a connection between the two. I don’t know where that comes from, this thing about not being able to speak freely. Any answer I gave you would be pure speculation, and I actually don’t like engaging in that. But clearly, we’ve had the two-percent budget cuts since the last WPA. I believe some employees are worried about prospects for the future. Whether that’s what’s behind these numbers I don’t know.”

Do you think that the prospect of cutbacks might make an employee feel that they aren’t free to voice their opinions?

“When cutbacks are imposed, that puts pressure on the entire organisation. We have announced that our financial situation is stable, and we don’t foresee anything radical as long as the central government doesn’t get up to any tricks. But despite that, being aware of the cutbacks can affect people. However, we can only guess how that plays into a WPA survey,” the rector says.

Double up on bullying 

In 2016, two percent of AU’s employees indicated that they had been subjected to bullying within the previous twelve months. This year, the percentage is four percent. And this doesn’t suit the rector:

“This is a two-fold increase over last time. And one case is one too many. I expect there to be a strong focus on this at the local level, wherever there are problems with this. It has to be dealt with. We have to lead the way and take action against bullying.” 

The percentage of employees who have been subjected to repeated incidents of abusive, offensive or derogatory speech has also increased in recent years.

In 2016, you says that you were surprised that the percentage was as high as six percent. Now it’s risen to nine percent. What do you think is going on? 

“I’m still surprised, because it’s not something I can recognize from our day-to-day lives. But it’s clear that some people are experiencing it, and we have to take that seriously. If you feel that someone’s talking down to you, it’s like a wound that you carry for the rest of the day – and maybe even longer. I think that we all feel hurt if someone speaks to us disrespectfully. It makes us feel degraded.”

How is responsibility for dealing with this shared – by you, the rest of the management and the employees?

“There’s only one cure, and that’s addressing the problem explicitly. It starts with the senior management team and myself sending the clear signal that all of us have to speak respectfully to each other. In addition, we have to spread the message that if you witness someone speaking disrespectfully to another person, your responsibility is to intervene and say: ‘That’s out of line. You played the man, not the ball.’”

Stress is an issue for fewer employees

In this WPA, there are fewer employees who are experiencing uncomfortable levels of stress. But the rector would like to reduce levels below the 23 percent reported in the WPA.

“Unfortunately, stress is still a significant factor. The percentage is still high, and so it really doesn’t matter that are levels aren’t exceptional in relation to others. It’s simply something we have to keep working on. There really isn’t anyone who’s cracked the code for dealing with it yet. And unfortunately, stress has become widespread in the population. We have to develop a culture together in which we do a better job of picking up on the early signs of stress – in ourselves and in others – so we can avoid serious consequences.” 

Feedback culture is another area that need improving, according to the rector. 

“I can see that most are quite satisfied with their immediate supervisor, whom they find accessible and receptive. But when it comes to getting feedback on your tasks and responsibilities, we need to strengthen the culture. And in the senior management team, we’ll be looking at how we can help our managers improve their ability to perform the difficult task of being a manager at a university.”

Quantifying trust in the senior management team

For the first time, the WPA included a question about employees’ trust in the senior management team. Eleven percent indicated that they either disagreed or completely disagreed that they trust in the senior management team’s ability to lead Aarhus University. And thirty two percent responded ‘neither agree nor disagree’.

Is that satisfactory?

“What should I compare it with? In relation to other institutions, the percentage is a little bit higher. But I’m an ambitious person, so I’m not saying that’s satisfactory. And in relation to my personal vanity, I really wish that number was a lot higher. And I’m going to strive to make it so. But I don’t know what the best possible number we can achieve is. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll get to a place where 100% percent respond ‘agree completely’. But I do take some comfort in the fact that we’re above the benchmark (the average for similar institutions, ed.) Now we have an internal target for this, and we’ll just have to see what happens next time,” the rector says.

Translation: Lenore Messick.

Facts: WPA

The results of the most recent WPA are now available here.

The WPA covers both the physical and the psychological work environment at AU, and the response rate was 71 percent.

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