The academic world is proving to be a prominent place where personal boundaries are transcended

Just assume it happens in your organization, says Naomi Ellemers. Cross-border behavior is everywhere, including at all universities. “So the main question is: how do you handle it and how do you prevent it?”

For two years, a committee of scientists led by Ellemers, a professor of social sciences at Utrecht University, worked on an advisory report on social security in science. Under the flag of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and commissioned by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The result was presented to Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (D66) on Thursday.

The committee spoke with administrators, scientists, educators, confidential advisors, staff, and other staff at all universities. This study was not about student social security.

One of the conclusions: The academic world is above all a place where personal boundaries can be easily exceeded. The hierarchy is strong – the most learned has the most authority. “The hack order is: you get judged on what you spend and how much money you bring in for research,” Ellemers says. At the same time, the workload is high – researchers are under great pressure to publish and raise funds.

Amateur HR policy

Universities trust that they are dealing with “wise people who can stand up for themselves and know how to do it. But it is not that easy.”

Compared to the business world, the personnel policy at the universities is often directly amateurish, Ellemers notes. “There are often no files, no 360-degree performance talks, where you can discuss the performance of yourself and the leader. It is quite normal for companies to make a plan for this. That you evaluate the quality of leadership and ask leaders to improve if they have made a mistake. It is not common in universities. ”

Investing time and money in ‘good behavior’ and manners is sometimes seen as a loss, as a waste. “As if it distracts from what everyone is really doing: research and knowledge development.”

Another conclusion from the researchers: codes of conduct and confidential advisers, where universities have invested in a number of cases of unwanted and cross-border behavior, are not enough. Ellemers: “Even if you have those things neatly arranged, many things still happen on the work floor. No, you need to build a daily routine into your organization – how do we handle each other here, and what do we consider normal? At the beginning of each job and project, discuss: we do this, and we do not. And where can you go if you think the normal limit has been exceeded? ”

Twilight area

Ellemers (59) does not like to talk about perpetrators and victims. “There are only a handful of really bad, manipulative people. You have to tackle it hard. We have instruments for that, even if they are not always used. There is a much larger twilight zone. People who get a position of power and then pay less attention to others. A power relationship does something to people. But there are also leaders who – perhaps in a hurry – say something to a subordinate and are completely unaware of the harm. Who really are not aware: ‘This person is going to be awake in weeks, yes months. ‘ “Half the time, people just do something. They only realize later, in the face of the consequences of what they said or did, that it went over a limit.”

Ellemers often asks a person who has been accused of cross-border behavior: If you could start over in this role, what would you do differently? “They tend to say they wish they had heard where they went too far before it went out of hand and had to get its head off.”

In any case, it is usually not the solution to punish or send people away after making mistakes, Ellemers says. “It’s better to immediately discuss what went wrong and give someone another chance. Or even better: to constantly confront each other about manners. Is that okay? Is it just possible? If someone says something wrong, he or she can also learn from it and move on. ”

Reports of unwanted behavior are now often processed legally. An external agency is hired to make a statement of the complaints. Someone gets fired or moved to another department. Sometimes nothing happens.

Look away

The legal approach is inadequate, Ellemers believes. “For the absolute bottom, a legal framework is needed. Criminal conduct. But often it is not so black and white. If the code of conduct says’ We treat each other with respect ‘and the boss says:’ Your legs look great in that skirt ‘, then he can then say:’ But I said it very respectfully. And it did not say in the code that I can not say anything about legs. “You can not do that much legally, even if you think it can not really be done.”

Also read: All codes of conduct, but students have nowhere to go

Colleagues and managers should intervene more quickly in case of unwanted behavior. But that is exactly what many find difficult, says Ellemers. They find it easier to criticize someone’s work than their behavior. Looking away is human, she says. “No one feels comfortable mentioning bad behavior directly. It’s loaded. So we prefer to pretend we don’t notice anything. But you can also learn to guide someone else.”

According to Ellemers, people find it threatening to be criticized for their social behavior. “You want to belong to the group, so you stick to all implicit codes as much as possible. It’s scary when people suddenly say you don’t do it. ”

The increased diversity also makes it harder to do this well. “If a group of colleagues in a department have worked together for years, made certain jokes and had certain habits, it’s hard as a group to adapt to new people. Women, people with a migration background. You really have to discuss it with everyone and make some compromises. ”

She concludes that any university should have rules of conduct that benefit everyone who works there. Which one then? Ellemers: “A good rule of thumb is: If in doubt, do not do it. Or ask yourself: how would I feel if someone did this to my partner or daughter?

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