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Bullying in regional universities is a serious problem that needs addressing

Research shows that female academics and those with family commitments were more likely to be bullied. www.shutterstock.com

Bullying in regional universities is a serious problem that needs addressing

A study of more than 22,000 university staff shows that academics in regional universities were more likely to experience bullying compared to those at other types of universities.

The survey, which looked at working life in 19 different universities across Australia, was set up to test whether the anecdotal complaints of colleagues at regional universities was anything more than the traditional complaints of academics about freedom, autonomy and managerialism.

What did the study show?

This was the first study of its kind to look at bullying across a range of Australian universities.

Overall, 28% of academics reported being bullied, with 12% saying the bullying they experienced was serious enough to consider taking a formal case. However, people were reluctant to take action as they felt pursing the matter would only make things worse.

The rate of bullying varied a lot across different types of universities. One third (36%) of academic staff at the four regional universities reporting being bullied, 1.5 times more than in the five Group of Eight – the most prestigious – universities.

Disturbingly, 42% of staff at one regional university said they had been bullied. Academics reported being publicly humiliated, excluded, intimidated and discriminated against.

Given the well-documented impact of bullying on physical and emotional well-being, these figures are shocking.

The institutional effects are also worrying. Workplace bullying damages productivity and reputation and can be seriously costly to universities.

Work-related harassment and/or workplace bullying has a direct cost of around A$18,000 per claim, according to Safe Work Australia – and this is without considering the indirect costs to productivity and staff turnover.

Given the recent changes in legislation, which requires employers to demonstrate they have been pro-active in addressing workplace health and safety issues, it’s critical to understand what might be contributing to these toxic work places.

Toxic work environments

The research showed that Aboriginal Australians, people from ethnic minority groups, women, and those with family commitments were more likely to be bullied.

Evidence of nepotism was also evident, with individuals who were appointed by a competitive process reporting more harassment than those who weren’t. And this was more common in regional universities.

Health and safety regulations require senior management to act to reduce workplace health hazards. But it’s likely that at least some senior managers of these institutions are modelling and enabling the bullying and harassment reported in this survey, without senior level support, a culture of bullying would not thrive.

How to change this culture of bullying

Changing a culture that propagates bullying and harassment, even with a determined cross-organisation effort, is a long-term endeavour.

Using guidance from Safe Work Australia on how to prevent and manage bullying in the workplace, going forward, universities need to:

Set the standard for appropriate behaviour Senior management need to set and enforce clear standards of behaviour through a code of conduct or a workplace policy that outlines what is and is not appropriate behaviour. They also need to state what action will be taken to deal with unacceptable behaviour. Unfortunately, many university policies currently require the victim to make a complaint to the probable bully as a first step.

Develop positive workplace relationships Universities need to promote positive leadership styles by providing training for managers and supervisors on communicating effectively in difficult situations, including how to engage workers in decision-making �(which the survey showed has decreased over recent years in regional universities), and providing constructive feedback.

Implement proper reporting procedures A victim needs to know there is a reporting process that protects them and will be acted on. Unfortunately, fear of victimisation is the most common reason given for not reporting bullying in the study.

Make sure reporting systems are confidential Using systems to provide confidential anonymous information on workplace behaviour, such as university surveys, like this one in the US called The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education program, are easy to implement and safe for victims.

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