Ugly-looking stories: HE and NDAs

10 May 2021      Ruth Turner, Membership Officer

Higher Education continues to be a target for questions and suspicion over its handling of bullying and sexual harassment cases, its use of Non-Disclosure Agreements to prevent ugly-looking stories from gaining wider public attention, writes Richard Peachey of CMP Solutions

The sector urgently needs to build a foundation of trust around its grievance and disciplinary processes. Especially now, in the post-Covid-19 era, when all institutions need high levels of engagement and loyalty to deliver on changing models.

Long-term concerns flared into controversy in 2019 with the BBC News investigation that claimed £87 million had been spent on ‘gagging orders’ in the previous two years alone. Reports suggested that while many NDAs had just been used as part of redundancy and severance deals, others were used to ‘re-classify’ serious complaints of sexual harassment, bullying or racism. Changing the label made it easier to save face and for perpetrators to move on to other institutions.

Since then the NDAs story hasn’t gone away for HE. The Government has been actively encouraging more employees in the public sector to “put their head above the parapet” and make a culture of whistleblowing the norm. In our new age of awareness of inappropriate behaviours in workplace generally, it’s more important than ever that universities make sure their processes for dealing with staff complaints - as well as student complaints against staff - are both fair and watertight.

That means introducing good processes that build confidence and trust among everyone involved with an institution: certainty they will be listened to and there will be a constructive outcome. In recent years CMP has worked with HE on putting in place new in-house systems and services, training mediators, facilitators, and informal investigators under the OIA guidelines for a range of HE and FE institutions, including Leeds Beckett, University of York, De Montfort University, University of the Arts, University of Cardiff, and University of Wolverhampton, as well as providing ad-hoc practitioners for independent mediations. In this way, issues are raised early and dealt with early, long before tensions increase, positions become entrenched and formal disciplinary action is needed.

Processes are just one part of the solution. Deeper and more long-lasting change comes from institutions where the right behaviours and skills have become commonplace. That means building a culture of ‘Conversational Integrity’ that leads to better handling of difficult conversations, allowing employees to feel able to be open, and most of all to create a sense of psychological safety in workplaces - people can be themselves, discuss problems early on without fear of recriminations or being ‘gagged’. 

Developing Conversational Integrity is needed to build an awareness of the role of conversations in relationships, how the quality of conversations changes dynamics, and the huge influence they have on the outcome of situations, particularly those most difficult of conversations where we’re most likely to want to rush to the easiest conclusions. Core skills for Conversational Integrity include ‘situational awareness’, the essential practice of ‘curiosity’, ‘reflective listening’, ‘empathy’, and ‘self awareness’ - so not just listening outwardly but inwardly, how your own ‘inner state’ is impacting on the flow of the conversation.

The future of good employee relations in HE will be built on these foundations, better people skills and better processes that make for an open and trusting culture.

Richard Peachey, HE workplace relationship specialist at CMP,

Join the team from CMP at #UHR21: Refreshing HR

Thursday 13 May, 11.45am

“Developing Psychological Safety with Conversational Integrity” with Penny Newton-Hurley, CMP Associate and Certified Psychological Safety Practitioner

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