News - June 21, 2012

Scared of the boss?

Are managers guilty of intimidation? And has that created a culture of fear? A confidential committee is going to look into it. There have been enough signals. Here is a line-up of some of the facts.
Text: Roelof Kleis and Gaby van Caulil

Kees van Diepen, researcher on the Earth Observation team at Alterra, looks back with mixed feelings on this year's New Year reception in Atlas. For him the festive gathering ended in a dressing-down from Aalt Dijkhuizen. The man at the top of Wageningen UR expressed his feelings about Van Diepen's earlier statements to the Volkskrant newspaper 'in no uncertain terms', as he put it himself. An intimidating experience, says Van Diepen. He sees it as typical of the management culture in Wageningen UR.
What happened to Van Diepen is not an isolated incident. Last summer, Peter Aerts, then secretary of the VHL Employees' Council, expressed a critical opinion of the school's management in an article in De Volkskrant national newspaper. He promptly received a registered letter from Aalt Dijkhuizen. 'He said I should never have done such a thing. I was damaging the organization. If it hapĀ­pened again, appropriate measures would be taken.' In the meeting that followed, according to Aerts, terms were used like, 'Do you know who pays your salary here?'. 'And it was all accompanied by a high-and-mighty attitude: he pushes you straight into a corner to overwhelm you and shut you up.' Aerts has no intention of shutting up, though. 'If we all let ourselves be guided by fear, nothing will ever change.'
Complaints about intimidation are nothing new. There have been warning signs for some time. In 2009, the confidential councillors saw an increase in the number of reports of intimidation. Particularly of intimidation by management. In that year there were 49 reports of unacceptable behaviour, half of them concerning intimidation. In the year before that, the subject of unacceptable behaviour had been included for the first time in the staff monitor, a two-yearly survey of Wageningen UR employees, for the first time. This was done at the behest of the then Central Employees' Council, which had received reports of staff feeling intimidated.
From the staff monitor (see box), it emerged that one in five staff members had suffered from intimidating behaviour. The survey result was seen by both board and employees' council as cause for action. In November 2010, the executive board came to the following decision: 'Combatting forms of undesirable behaviour deserves consistent attention in the organization. This issue will therefore be taken up by the employees' council and HR. Leaders in the organization should also be alert to the need to prevent or deal with undesirable behaviour. Management teams are asked to take the lead in this.'
Confidential councillors
So what is the situation half a year down the line? It depends on which part of the organization you look at. The AFSG and the corporate staff (personnel, policy, communication and finance) have not paid any extra attention to unacceptable behaviour. Managers have been asked to be alert for intimidation and make it something that can be discussed. The SSG and Rikilt have appointed additional confidential councillors. Imares, the ASG, and the PSG are offering more training to the victims of intimidation to make them more assertive.
There is a lot going on at VHL, largely as a result of dissatisfaction with the management and the consequences of the relationship between VHL and Wageningen UR. Ten Have Change Management bureau has started an investigation into the level of support for that relationship, and a number of the problems are now being addressed. One of these problems is the troubled relationship between the staff and the directors and executive board.
The ESG and Imares launched a follow-up investigation. The works council of Imares instigated a survey last year into intimidation on the work floor. They took advice on this from Bezemer & Kuiper, a research and consultancy bureau in Rotterdam that specializes in 'tackling unacceptable forms of interaction'.  Half the staff filled in the questionnaire. The outcome was remarkable. A full 29 percent of them said they had experienced some form of intimidation in the last year. This is considerably more than the 16 percent that Imares scored on this point in the staff monitor of 2010.
Bezemer & Kuiper carried out a similar survey at the ESG. That report was finished early in May but has not yet been made public.
Take it or leave it
Intimidation is a many-headed beast. Everyone defines it in their own way and not everyone has an equally thick skin. The investigation at Imares gives an interesting insight into what is understood by intimidation there. The staff were asked to say whether they considered a number of specified behaviours to be intimidating. Kissing someone on their birthday is pretty uncontroversial at Imares. But a pat on the shoulder for a colleague you don't know particularly well is seen as less normal. And a kiss from your manager for winning an assignment is seen by many people at Imares as quite intimidating and therefore unacceptable.
At VHL, intimidation appears to be defined as a lack of appreciation and a 'take it or leave it' attitude at the top. For instance, Ad Olsthoorn acted as spokesman last year for a group of angry VHL staff who were protesting against the abrupt dismissal of their programme director. The protest led to a petition in which they asked for Dijkhuizen's support. He came and talked to them, but his speech went down like a lead balloon. It caused such offence in fact that the signatories to the petition submitted a complaint to the VHL employees' council.  It was the call for more commitment in particular that created bad blood, says Olsthoorn. 'The combination with this sentence: "We certainly can't and don't want to force you to work for an organization in which you do not feel at home' feels to us like a threat to our ability to function', reads the letter to the employees' council. The letter led the council to put the subject on the agenda for consultations with director Ellen Marks, but she refused to discuss it. This way of behaving is symptomatic, says council representative Gerrie Koopman. 'We have come up against other cases like this. Intimidation played a big role in our vote of no confidence in Ellen Marks too. Everything depends on trust. And if you feel intimidated, there can be no trust.'
The offending words in the speech do not stand alone. Similar expressions were used on other occasions, says Olsthoorn.
Culture of fear
The heart of the matter, according to Olsthoorn, is that Dijkhuizen's definition of intimidation is wrong. 'Aalt appears to think that a staff member should just be able to cope with it if the boss loses his temper. But if you define it that way, there is never any question of intimidation of course.' Olsthoorn sees this as quite a problem.  'If he were to operate like this as a student in a work group, he would fail on social competencies and communication. It is unacceptable.' According to Van Diepen it is the leadership style in particular that creates a culture of fear and intimidation. 'I'm talking about Dijkhuizen's leadership style, one of handing down edicts and ignoring opposition, so that staff do not feel free to voice their criticism in public. This style is imitated within Wageningen UR.' Van Diepen feels that this is reflected in a culture of achievement, with deplorable effects. 'A side effect of the focus on individual achievement can be that colleagues look the other way when someone gets into trouble.' The management, says Van Diepen, tends to ignore the problems. 'Or they get put down to the incompetence of the complainants.' Incidents such as the ones at the New Year reception and at VHL take place in public and draw a lot of attention. But they are not isolated events. The confidential councillors are receiving more and more reports of unacceptable behaviour - and some of these concern intimidation. There were 49 incidents in 2009, a figure which went up to 58 in 2010 and 68 in 2011. The editors of Resource regularly hear stories about staff members who feel intimidated, too. But no one dares to speak out or name names.
The question is, then, whether we are talking about incidents or whether there is a systematic problem with the way we treat each other in Wageningen UR. This question cannot be answered without a thorough investigation. So the employees' council and the executive board had decided to commission an additional enquiry into intimidation and the role of directors and managers in this regard. The results can be expected in six months, at the earliest.
Independently of the planned enquiry, the next staff monitor, due in September, will ask again and more precisely about intimidation. After the 2010 monitor it was clear whether respondents were talking about verbal, physical or sexual intimidation, but not whether it came from a manager, colleague, subordinate, student, someone outside the department or outside Wageningen UR. The new monitor will probe into this question more specifically.
One in five experiences intimidation
Two percent of respondents to the 2010 staff monitor replied 'often' to the following statement: 'In the past year I have encountered intimidating behaviour at work'. 'Sometimes' was the answer chosen by 17 per cent. Sizeable differences were recorded: VHL scored 31 per cent on intimidation; SSG just 12 per cent.
An average of 19 percent: is that high? While the Wageningen percentages do not lend themselves to comparison with the national average, TNO's National Working Conditions Survey provides a useful gauge. It tells us that an average of 9.9 of all Dutch employees encountered 'intimidation by [a] supervisor or colleagues' in 2010.  No comparison with other universities, universities of applied science and market-oriented knowledge institutes is available.
'Disputes and facts are mixed up'
The executive board declines to comment on the individual cases. It has made the following general statement.
'We think it is a pity this article confuses a number of different issues. It deals with the dispute between Aalt Dijkhuizen and Kees van Diepen, the sensitivities between the staff and the management at VHL, the leadership style and facts about the scale of intimidation. It is not helpful to mix up disputes and facts in this way. What is more, many of the facts and claims are demonstrably untrue and links are made that cannot be proven, making them all the more damaging.
We deplore the way the impression is given that something is badly wrong in Wageningen UR. And that we do not take this issue seriously. This picture does not match the figures on sick leave and staff turnover, which are often used as a yardstick. It is a pity these data are not brought into a factual account of cases of intimidation. Within our organization, we have systems which staff can make use of if they come across irregularities. They can take them up with their managers (and we help staff in this by providing training), they can refer to the confidential councillor or make use of the whistle-blower regulation. It pains the executive council that internal discussions are carried out via the press. When this happens, we respond in strong terms, especially if the approach is personal. We shall continue to do so. It is not what we want to do, but we also feel we should not run away from it. It is in the interests of all of us that our organizations stands for openness and trust. That principle goes for everyone - for staff and for the executive board.'