In 2017, fifteen Wageningen students reported suffering from undesirable behaviour, as did 68 staff members. This was revealed in the annual report of the WUR confidential counsellors. The number of reports has increased slightly in the last few years.
The fourteen confidential counsellors of WUR saw 83 accounts of undesirable behaviour in 2017 at WUR. Most of the reports came from women. The staff members mostly suffered verbal and psychological aggression and harassment from managers. Men were designated as the perpetrator slightly more often than women. The students who reported with the confidential counsellor mostly suffered sexual harassment.
The confidential counsellors offered the victims a listening ear and helped them find a solution. In sixteen cases, victim requested confidential counsellors to accompany them to a conversation with the perpetrator. ‘They are the ones who must take action, because confidential counsellors cannot solve the case itself’, says confidential counsellor Martie Wagenaar.
The harassments consisted of excluding staff members, withholding information, gossiping and insulting, and assigning absurd and particularly difficult tasks. The intimidation consisted of psychological pressure, whereby the manager would put their department under pressure and fan internal competition for money and assignments, for example. In the case of poor financial results and high work pressure, a morbid work environment can easily arise, in which tensions can lead to intimidating behaviour, the confidential counsellors say. They report that in half of the cases, labour conflicts play a part in the undesirable behaviour.
The 14 cases of sexual harassment occurred before the #metoo movement emerged. Some of these issues were very difficult because the victims often did not have the courage to report the undesirable behaviour due to their dependency relationship to the perpetrator, the confidential counsellors report. For example, PhD candidates who were sexually harassed by their supervisors and who sometimes only had the courage to report this to the counsellor after their defence. Sometimes not even then, out of fear for their further career prospects.
Tip of the iceberg
Wagenaar thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg. ‘It’s still a guess, but we cannot imagine the number of people to have been harassed to be so low. An investigation by TNO shows that six percent of the workforce is faced with undesirable behaviour. Not everyone who deals with harassments contacts a confidential counsellor.’
In order to better identify undesirable behaviour among students, WUR has already appointed a second confidential counsellor for students, to allow for more time to be spent on spreading information and awareness. ‘And this really is not just about squeezing bottoms in itself, but also about the dependency relationship between victims and perpetrators’, Wagenaar says.
Wagenaar also argues for more direct support of managers by WUR. ‘WUR often knows which departments are not running smoothly, both in financial and communicative sense. We need to provide managerial support in those departments.’ She thinks that clarity can often help. ‘Sometimes, we hear from employees that they do not know where they stand and that they do not feel safe. They are afraid they will be sacked. We reply: why don’t you ask your supervisor. And their fear often turns out not to be justified.’