Universities must confront the problem with harassment

Why was Uppsala University’s HR division not fully aware?

Julie Hansen
This is a discussion article. The opinions expressed are the writer’s own.

Strangely, the recently published results of the Survey on gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the Swedish higher education sector were surprising and yet not so surprising at the same time. Nearly 39,000 employees, students and doctoral students at 38 institutions of higher education took this national survey. The numbers were sobering: in the previous twelve months, 4% of respondents had been subjected to sexual harassment, 7% were targets of bullying and approximately 50% had experienced incivility in the workplace.

At Uppsala University, the percentage of female doctoral students subjected to bullying was above the national average, at more than one in five. This appeared to come as a surprise to Uppsala University’s Human Resources Division: in an interview with Sveriges Television, HR Director Eliane Forsse stated that they had not been fully aware of the problem. Presumably, the numbers were less surprising to those employees and students at Uppsala University who have been targets of, or witnesses to, abusive behavior in the workplace. Even for those who have not, anecdotal evidence abounds, and there is generally a growing awareness in academia of work environment issues.

So how is it possible that the HR division of a respected university in Sweden, which has a work environment act, was not aware of the extent of the problem? I believe part of the answer can be found in two mutually reinforcing factors: the first is a culture of silence, while the second concerns employer practices and, more specifically, HR itself.

There are obstacles to speaking out against abusive behavior in the academic workplace. Many victims fear it will lead to intensified harassment or harm their careers. In the above-mentioned survey, only 12% of those subjected to sexual harassment chose to file a report. The reasons given by the remaining 88% include fear of retaliation and other negative consequences.

Another obstacle is the odious practice of victim-blaming, which aims to evoke feelings of self-doubt and shame in those subjected to harassment. In the monograph Mobbning på jobbet: Uttryck och åtgärder (2016), organizational psychologist Stefan Blomberg observes that underreporting of workplace bullying can be partly explained by the reluctance of many employees to categorize themselves as victims of it.

Further obstacles await those who do come forward, and here is where HR practices come into play. Filing a formal complaint presupposes trust in the integrity of university management and HR. There must be due process, transparency and accountability. Yet one of the reasons cited in the survey for not reporting harassment is the belief that it would not have made any difference.

Section 14 of the Swedish Work Environment Authority provisions on organizational and social work environment states the following:

“An inadequate investigation of victimization may be harmful to both the work environment and employee health. The situation should therefore be investigated by someone who has adequate expertise, is able to act impartially, and is trusted by the involved parties.”

There are indications that this has not always been the case. Earlier this year, Dagens ETC reported on criticism of the handling of harassment complaints by Uppsala University management and HR. Employees testified to unprofessional and unethical actions by external consultants hired to assess the psychosocial work environment and investigate harassment complaints. This kind of intervention runs the risk of traumatizing employees, as well as normalizing and compounding abusive behavior. Under such circumstances, the mere suggestion of bringing in a consultant has a potential silencing effect on employees.

Such low standards with regard to the work environment are baffling given the available research and evidence-based methods for prevention and intervention. At the same time, the costs of a bad work environment to individuals, organizations and society – which include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide – are unacceptably high.

In light of this, the final question posed by Sveriges Television to HR Director Forsse is crucial: “For those who wish to pursue a PhD in Uppsala, is the university a healthy workplace?” Forsse replied, “I think they shouldn’t be afraid to come to Uppsala, because we have so much that is good and nice here, and which functions really well.”

It can be tempting for reputation-conscious universities to downplay work environment problems in this way. Indeed, international university rankings do not take the work environment into account. There seems to be a conditioned reflex of looking on the bright side (or, as the Swedish phrase goes, “vi ska blicka framåt”), rather than confronting the problem at hand.

This must not be allowed to happen with the results of the first-ever national study of gender-based violence and harassment at Swedish universities. Employers must be held accountable for the work environment of university students and employees, who are, after all, the most valuable human resources in higher education.

Julie Hansen
Associate Professor of Slavic Languages, Uppsala University
Vice-Chair, SULF/Uppsala

Julie Hansen

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