Organisation - June 7, 2012

Research into ‘culture of fear' in Wageningen UR

An organization-wide investigation is to be conducted into the alleged culture of fear in Wageningen UR. Aalt Dijkhuizen, chair of the executive board, has agreed on this with the central employees' council of Wageningen UR. How this will be approached will be decided this month.

The dispute between Aalt Dijkhuizen (hand on hips) and Kees van Diepen (dark blue jacket) at the New Year reception in Atlas. Kees Slingerland is on the left (blue tie, white shirt), Roelof Kleis on the far right (black sweater).
The research follows an altercation between Dijkhuizen and Kees van Diepen, chair of the ESG employees' council. Last December, Van Diepen aired his criticism of Dijkhuizen's - in his view - authoritarian behaviour in an article in the Volkskrant national daily. Van Diepen claimed that this behaviour sowed fear in the organization and that people have been cowed into submission.
Allegations
Dijkhuizen immediately took up the matter at high level (see box). ‘To me, the allegation that there is a culture of fear in our organization, is one of the worst you could come up with', he says. He thinks Van Diepen has an obligation to substantiate his claims and name names. When that had not happened by the beginning of May he called on Van Diepen publicly (including in the Volkskrant) to apologize. ‘Strikes me as only right. A real man stands up for himself and is also capable of apologizing', said Dijkhuizen in the email.
Instead of apologies, Dijkhuizen received a long letter in which Van Diepen outlines in full what he bases his claims on. He also explains why he cannot present evidence. ‘That is not my role. People talk to me confidentially as a member of the employees' council.' Van Diepen also decided to draw attention to the issue more broadly. Besides Dijkhuizen and the executive board, his letter went to the central employees' council and the supervisory board of Wageningen UR.
Looking the other way
According to van Diepen it is not just a question of fear. ‘It is also a matter of the leadership culture. And in response to that, a tendency to look the other way. People look away when they see that colleagues are being intimidated. That makes for a lack of mutual solidarity.'
Van Diepen says that as a member of the employees' council, he gets signals from the workfloor, including from outside the ESG. Especially when it comes to intimidation, he says he notices ‘copycat behaviour', directly linked to the way Dijkhuizen behaves.
In consultation with the WUR council (the central participational body), Dijkhuizen has agreed to launch an independent inquiry. He wants the accusations swept off the table. ‘One of two things will come out if this: either concrete cases will emerge, on the basis of which we can work on a solution, or there aren't any and we will stop making accusations. I am all for an open culture, but it has to be one that is based on facts as far as humanly possible. Especially when it comes to accusations of this kind.' RK

Happy New Year?
It happened during the New Year reception in January - one month after the article about Dijkhuizen in de Volkskrant. ESG director Kees Slingerland, Resource editor Roelof Kleis and Kees van Diepen stood chatting in Atlas. Aalt Dijkhuizen joined them and wished the first two a happy new year. But instead of shaking hands with Van Diepen, he gave him a piece of his mind. Did he have any idea how much damage he had done? The fact that he was at the reception was evidence enough of how tolerant the organization was. ‘In the business world you would have been sacked on the spot.' Kleis: ‘I walked away. I found it embarrassing, intimidating and inappropriate to raise this at a New Year's reception.' Slingerland, on the other hand, saw nothing intimidating about it. ‘It was no joke, what Aalt did, but you should see this as a response to the allegations in the Volkskrant.'
A perfect demonstration of the sort of behaviour he wanted to bring up for discussion, says Van Diepen. Dijkhuizen rejected a proposal to talk about it again. ‘He only wanted to do that if I brought the people who had complained along so that they could talk to him directly.' Dijkhuizen: ‘Van Diepen has still not been very specific. The statistics from the confidential counsellors and the most recent staff survey provide no support whatsoever for Van Diepen's claims.'

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