Organisation - December 2, 2010

Intimidation thrives on the work floor

One in five Wageningen UR employees encountered intimidation at work in one way or another, say the results of an employee survey (Medewerkermonitor). What do we understand by intimidation? Resource reports on the experiences of some employees – names withheld – and speaks to a confidential counsellor.

Do I see a spelling error, miss Jannie?
Statistics like these make the Employees' Council sit up. It will make intimidation an issue which warrants attention from the university management in the months to come. But what is intimidation? The regulations for complaint procedures define 'unwanted behaviour' as something 'the purpose or consequence of which is that a person's dignity is affected and as a result of which a threatening, hostile, insulting, humiliating or offensive environment is created'.  Confidential counsellor Martie Wagenaar affirms that intimation is a general term. 'It is subjective, because it concerns a person's experience', adding, however, that the consequences can be far reaching. 'Someone who feels intimidated can, for example, suffer from uncertainty, fear, stress and health problems.'
The employee survey does not differentiate between intimidation on the work floor and other types of intimidation, such as from students. Resource's interviews with employees have however brought up mainly incidents on the work floor. It appears that employees often feel intimidated by their superiors. Wagenaar: 'For example, it could be the way the supervisor brings something across. That can sound very intimidating.'
Supervisors are not always aware of this, she adds. 'Sometimes, it's just a bad way of communication, although of course superiors do put employees under pressure on purpose.'
Intimidation can affect the atmosphere and the entire department in a big way. Colleagues of those involved may, for example, be afraid that the same would happen to them, and so feel insecure. Wagenaar: 'Good managers notice and do something about this quickly. But managers are often part of the problem itself.'
Tip of the iceberg
The confidential counsellors are surprised at the high percentage of employees who reported  intimidation in the employee survey. 'We did see an increase in the number of reports in the annual statistics. But we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg. People only come to us when they are at their wits' end.'
Wagenaar feels that the increase is very disturbing. 'Each year, we make recommendations in our annual report to pay more attention to the social and communication skills of managers, also during the selection process. We wonder if Wageningen UR places these skills high on its competencies list.'
When one feels intimidated, it's never too early to sound the alarm, stresses Wagenaar. 'The employee is the first person who can alter the situation. If no-one indicates that something is going on, things will never change.'
The confidential counsellor's task is to sort out the problems and offer suitable advice. Sometimes, it becomes clear that a work conflict or a personal issue is involved. If it concerns an unsuitable work culture, the solution could be to look for another another job. But Wagenaar says that this is practically impossible for some employees, such as postdocs, trainees with specialist tasks and older employees.
Load off your mind
Wagenaar advises people who feel intimidated to talk to their colleagues, their partner or a friend, and to consult a confidential counsellor as soon as possible. 'Even if it's just to get that load off your mind. Or to discuss your ideas on how to handle the problem.' Wagenaar stresses that confidential counsellors keep what they hear to themselves. They will only take action if the employee so desires. 'Sometimes, people ask me to go with them to talk to their supervisors. Sometimes, I can take the edge off a conflict. I ask questions to put the problem into perspective, and in so doing, the conversation calms down and more room is created for listening to each another.'
Unfortunately, not all problems are easy to solve. 'If we reach a stalemate with the supervisor or the personnel officer, we take the matter to someone higher. As a last resort, there's the complaint procedure. In some cases, it is necessary to have an independent complaint committee judge whether the complaint is justified and see what can be done about it. However, this requires a lot of effort. It's usually better when things don't get that far.'
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'In the Employee Monitor, I wrote that I had been intimidated. Namely, I once sent out a letter about university policy. Subsequently, the management told me - through my supervisor - that since I did not like the policy, why didn't I just go somewhere else to work. That sounded like: be careful of what you say because I can simply fire you.'
'I am irritated by two men who often talk with sexual connotations. They do that constantly, as if it's part of their usual behaviour. That makes it so difficult to do something about it.
At some point in time, they turned their attention towards me, just like that and in public in the canteen. I was dumbfounded and did not know what to do. Not too long ago, however, when an insinuation was made again, I gave that person a piece of my mind. A colleague told me later that the person involved did not understand why I reacted like that.'
'Recently, I made some remarks about the organization to my department head. He told me off and belittled me in the presence of the secretariat. It sounded like: you are an employee and I am the boss; it's none of your business. This incident typifies this organization; it's very top-down. You're faced with all sorts of directives. And your objections aren't listened to. That's also intimidation. After some time, an employee just retreats to his own little island. I do my best for my little group but I don't care about the rest. Looking back, you realize that someone should have taken action; someone should have told him that he was over-reacting and that such behaviour really wasn't acceptable. I find that it's good to bring such matters out into the open. It also sends a signal to others, telling them: you are not the only one who's going through all that.'
'When employees in the institute have too little work, they get coaching or attend courses to improve their performance. For those who still can't buck up, the thumbscrews are tightened. Their superiors would reason that they are too costly and decide to stop spending money on them. People like these are placed under pressure to resign and see this as intimidation.'
'My boss gave me an assignment and referred to previous agreements made about it. To support his story, he used hand gestures and he had a certain tone of voice. But these agreements didn't exist. It was just his word against mine and he forbade me to talk about this to my colleagues or to my supervisor.'
'Once, an employee came down hard on me about something which did not concern me. He was very angry and I happened to be the first person he ran into. He was ranting and raving. Just when I too began to lose my cool, a colleague came by. After some more muttering, the man left. Later, I told him that I was annoyed by his outburst, but I didn't think he got my message.'
'Last year, chair groups were dissolved and with this, professors were re-clustered within a broader context. Our sciences group drew up a proposal for clustering the professors into working groups. Not everyone was pleased about this, but the directors demanded that the professors should keep their mouths shut. We were really placed under a lot of pressure - really intimidating.'
'I felt intimidated by my former supervisor, who had a domineering attitude. I didn't dare to open my mouth anymore. If you said anything, you were attacked verbally.'
'It is mainly psychological violence. It feels terrible if you don't get appreciated and people are disinterested. That is also intimidation. In addition, things are swept under the mat. A few people have resigned because of sexual intimidation. For example, a group of people found fun in making remarks or touching. But if such instances are reported, nothing is done about them.'
'A certain atmosphere prevailed during the meetings concerning the merger for Van Hall Larenstein. The attitude from Wageningen was: you aren't much and should be happy that you can be with the WUR.'
'My supervisor asked me - just as I was about to put on my coat to go home - about my workload. Hmm... how nice of him, I thought, and told him that I was up to my neck in work and the work pressure was indeed very heavy. A few months later, my remark was brought up during the performance evaluation. The conclusion was that my ability to plan wasn't up to standard. That incident affected me very badly. I had thought that I was in an environment safe enough to tell my story.'
The names of the interviewed are known to the reporters.
Alexandra Branderhorst, Roelof Kleis, Thea Kuijpers, Albert Sikkema