The London School of Economics (LSE) have just provided another classic example of failure to deal with harassment. The outcome has been — predictably enough — the demoralization of the victims and the exoneration of the aggressor, who is now free to exact revenge.

The story is a familiar one, documented here in the LSE student newspaper by Amadea Hofmann. Five formal complaints and nine informal allegations against a single academic were brought to the attention of the senior management team at the LSE. The LSE launched an investigation in October 2021. The accused individual was suspended with pay, although the suspension seems to have been at best partial.

A catalogue of errors then followed. They are common failings in almost all investigations run by Universities.

1 Poor Minutes of Meetings: This is serious because minutes have evidentiary value. It is standard practice in UK Universities for minutes to be taken by hand by a member of the Human Resources team. HR proudly announce that the minutes are then a “non-verbatim record”, as though this is a very special achievement. The minutes are usually routed through the University’s legal department before the complainants get a copy to approve. The lawyers are interested in minimising the legal liability of the University, so anything problematic may well be downplayed or even missing. Doctored minutes are also known, in which fallacious statements are inserted. The solution is obvious. All such meetings pertaining to Grievances should be recorded for the safety of all involved.

2. Failing to Interview Witnesses: This is often accomplished by the Terms of Reference. Any University investigation has very well-defined Terms of Reference. They are normally highly restrictive, perhaps confining attention to very specific events within a narrow time-frame. Relevant events or witnesses are then not considered if they fall outside the Terms of Reference or outside the prescribed dates. This is serious, as it often means patterns of abusive behaviour, perhaps extending over long timeframes with other victims, cannot be examined and taken into account. Again, the intention is to minimise any chance of being able to substantiate the case against a senior academic. The solution is obvious. Follow the evidence wherever it goes.

3. Inordinate Timeframes: Everything proceeds very slowly, so the investigation takes years. In the case of the LSE, it took roughly 2 years. Such timescales are not unusual. This has two effects. First, the victims are gradually worn down by the very slow progress. They are required to maintain confidentiality over this prolonged time period with consequences for their mental health. Second, many violations of employment law or claims for negligence have strict time limits at the Employment Tribunals or Courts. Thus, lengthy delays ensures that the University legal department can eventually argue everything is out of time, if matters ever come to trial. But, normally the victims are too demoralized once the University has finished with them.

4 Incompetent Investigators: Sometimes, as in the LSE case, it is an academic staff member or HR business manager who investigates despite lack of training or expertise, especially if victims have been traumatized. There is also of course an obvious conflict of interest. Sometimes, the University hires a professional investigator or barrister. Even here, the University may have briefed the investigator and given a steer as to the desired outcome. It is all too easy for the investigator to conclude that the evidence is not strong enough and so the claims cannot be substantiated, which is what the University prefers.

5 Failing to inform complainants of progress and any action taken; ACAS guidelines clearly state that the investigation should be timely. They envisage timescales of weeks or perhaps months for the most difficult cases — not several years. ACAS also state “If it’s found that more time is needed during the investigation, this should be allowed for. Any delays should be explained to anyone involved and written in the investigation report.”. So, the complainants should be kept informed of progress, so they are not left in the dark. This did not happen in the LSE.

6 Failure of safeguarding: Safeguarding in bullying and harassment cases should be paramount. It is best if the alleged perpetrator is suspended while the investigation is underway. Although this happened at the LSE, it seems that the implementation was very half-hearted. There should be no possibility of contact or interaction between the alleged perpetrator and the victims.

The LSE’s grievance procedure is very typical. The same problems occur again and again, University after University. In fact, similar problems with flawed investigations — this time at the University of Kent — were reported in the Times Higher Educational Supplement here only a month earlier. The title says it all “Kent’s handling of misconduct complaint made things worse”

It is hard not to conclude that the main function of University Grievance procedures is to protect the wrongdoer and to demoralize the victims. In this, it is extremely successful. The complaints system not just lets these abuses happen again and again, but it eviscerates the very people who complain. It is a disgrace.

The 21 Group pays tribute to Prof Taylor Sherman who resigned her Professorship at the LSE in protest at their handling of this matter, as well as other academics who are boycotting the LSE as external examiners.

Categories: Blog

1 Comment

Anon · 17 March 2024 at 02:17

Maya makes a very poignant observation in the article when she says, “They can destroy your career without it ever being traced back to them.” They absolutely can, and this behavior is to be expected when there is whistleblowing. Relational aggression is typically the first action taken in retaliation against targets by both perpetrators and the institutions or senior academics who protect them.

Allies and sycophants of the perpetrators, or “flying monkeys” as they are termed in popular circles (not a great expression in my opinion as it’s an insult to non-human primates), may monitor targets’ social media activity, and in extreme cases, even resort to hacking or unauthorized access to emails. Where a perpetrator is keeping a low profile they can rely on a John (or a Bob, or Bill for that matter) Smith higher-up in senior management, to spread damaging rumors on their behalf through professional networks, aiming to blacklist, shame, and ostracize the target, with the hope of silencing and discrediting them. With some institutions that have a global reach and global research connections, there is nowhere for the target to turn or to escape this kind of pillorying.

Of course, the target will seldom, if ever, find out what is being said about them or to whom, but they cannot help but notice the ostracism, the mysteriously missed opportunities, the silence, and the shame. The distress this kind of social and career death generates is really very intense and is, of course, done by design. In many cases, individuals leave their field due to this hostility, while tragically, in some rare cases, some may even take leave of life through suicide.

The key for anyone experiencing this kind of retaliation through relational aggression is neither to be intimidated into silence or to give up on life but to work at all costs to take control of their own narrative, and not allow an institution or perpetrator to define it. It is imperative for targets to empower themselves by realizing that only they can define themselves and control their life narratives.

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