Undergraduate students who are experiencing bullying and are dissatisfied with their university’s response can appeal directly to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA). The OIA can challenge any decision of a university’s disciplinary body (for example, if the university has not taken an allegation seriously).
The 21 Group accepts queries from staff and postgraduate students at UK universities who are trying to figure out what to do in relation to bullying or harassment. We will help with advice, if we can, though we do not have the resources for detailed casework. We may be able to put you in contact with an individual who has suffered similarly at your university — they will know how to navigate the grievance system and may be aware of the tricks your university uses. Our website also provides help and resources.
We have compiled some of the common answers that we give to queries from staff and postgraduate students suffering bullying and harassment. There will be no improvement in the culture of UK universities unless bullied individuals complain. However, the process of complaining itself is stressful, demanding and time-consuming. It is almost always biased in favour of the bully. Each individual must make his or her own decision according to individual circumstance.
If you are a postgraduate student or a young academic, then you have limited time to establish yourself. It is often easier to move to a different university or research team than tackle a bullying supervisor or principal investigator. There is no shame in this. It is the job of senior academics and administrators to ensure that your university has a safe and supportive environment, not the job of untenured staff and students.
Scroll down to the sections below.
- Should I make an informal complaint?
- How do I get evidence of bullying?
- Should I raise the matter as an informal or formal grievance with HR?
- What happens during the grievance procedure?
- Should I take legal action?
Should I make an informal complaint?
If you are being bullied, then it is important to talk to someone. If you are a member of a Trade Union, then they can offer support and advice. They will also have previous experience of dealing with bullying at your university. If you are not a member of a Trade Union, then you should consider joining before making a complaint.
Most university departments have Wellbeing Advocates or Peer Supporters, who are often helpful and sympathetic. If your problem is relatively minor, then there is a good chance it can be resolved in this way. However, if your problem is at all serious, then you will likely be referred to your university’s Human Resources (HR) team.
Your university’s HR team will ask you for some evidence or supporting information.
How do I get evidence of bullying?
Keep a record of everything that happens to you. Nowadays, in the age of smartphones and zoom/Teams meetings, if is easy to record bullying taking place. There is in general no expectation of privacy in a work meeting, and so it is perfectly legal to record public misbehaviour. This may not hold true in a private meeting.
A powerful method of obtaining evidence is to make a Data Subject Access Request. You may request information held on file about you by your employer, by your line manager, by your Head of Department or by the HR department. This might be emails between academics, managers, HR, administrators and others, in which you are named. So, email traffic about promotion, pay, complaints or even just malicious and defamatory gossip in which you are mentioned can be extracted from your university. Needless to say, this can be very revealing.
A university has a month to respond with your data, though if the request is complex, an additional month is permitted. The procedure for a data subject access request should be given on your university’s webpage. Normally, the request is submitted via email to your university’s data protection officer, together with proof of identification.
Should I raise the matter with HR?
Before raising any matter with HR, be sure to familiarise yourself with all your university’s policies and procedures very carefully. Treat this as any other academic exercise. Before relying on any information provided by others such as HR, check its source. The dignity at work policy, the whistleblowing policy and the grievance and complaints procedure all need to be scrutinised very carefully before you begin. It is paramount to understand the procedures and timescales as fully as possible.
Normally, each school in a university has its own HR manager. He or she has considerable powers to shape matters within the school and so there is some variation across the schools within a university, as well as variation between universities.
Just as in the industrial and commercial world, HR works for the employer, not the employee. Our view is that the primary aim of any university’s HR team is to protect the reputation and brand of the university. Reputation is often a university’s most valuable asset. It is arduous and time-consuming to build, but it can be damaged very quickly. Any grievance is viewed through this lens by HR.
As bullying derives from power, most bullies are senior and influential figures, such as professors and heads of department. Allegations of bullying against senior figures are unlikely to be sustained. We know this because surveys of academics show bullying is frequent, yet very few bullies are ever convicted. It would be damaging for a university’s reputation and brand to have to concede a senior figure is a bully.
You may still wish to raise a grievance formally with HR. You should bear in mind that raising a grievance with university HR can be draining and de-moralizing. It can waste a lot of your time, energy and effort. Even worse, in waiting for a grievance to be dealt with internally, employees may miss the opportunity to file their case with the Arbitration and Conciliation Advisory Service (ACAS), which enforces a strict 90-day limit for the reporting of cases.
During the grievance procedure, it is unfortunately common that complainants are not kept informed about the progress of their complaint, and have little protection from victimisation or malicious rumour-mongering by the accused.
What happens during the grievance procedure?
If you put in a formal complaint, you will then be obliged to keep all details of the complaint confidential during the process of investigation and also during an appeal if this happens. This can take many months or years (remember, university management does everything slowly).
Our view is that some confidentiality is required during the grievance procedure to protect individuals against false allegations and to prevent the suborning or intimidation of witnesses. However, confidentiality may also be used to cover up wrongdoing, mistreatment and mistakes by your university.
This strict insistence on confidentiality isolates the individual making the grievance, often over months or years. It is easy to end up feeling lonely, forsaken and with mental health problems. We recommend that you establish a confidential network of allies and supporters at outset and communicate with them using secure, non-University email accounts during the grievance procedure. As long as your support group does not violate confidentiality, this is fine.
Universities sometimes insist on confidentiality even after the grievance process has ended. This is wrong. If an individual has been found guilty of bullying or harassment, then any requirement for confidentiality ends. Bullying flourishes in UK universities as the chance of public exposure is minute.
During the grievance procedure, you have a right to be accompanied to meetings by a trade union representative or a work colleague. We strongly recommend that you never attend any meeting with representatives of the university without a companion both for support and as a witness. It is easy to feel outnumbered and pressurised without appropriate support.
We encourage bullying victims to make complaints, as otherwise the culture will not change. But we are realistic. By far the most common outcome of the grievance procedure is that your university will conclude that a “detailed investigation” has found that none of your allegations should be upheld. There are many examples of this reported in the UK media.
Should I take legal action?
Bullying is not against the law in the UK.
However, there are numerous laws that an employee can rely on to bring legal action against an employer, including discrimination laws, public interest disclosure laws (for whistleblowers), health and safety laws (if an employer shows a pattern of lack of safeguarding against bullying) and laws about constructive dismissal.
If you have documentary evidence and witnesses, you might want to consult a lawyer at outset. It is particularly important to note that if you want to go to an employment tribunal, there are short time limits, often as little as a month after the last incident. It is possible to spend a lot of time communicating fruitlessly with intransigent university HR departments, and then find yourself out of time.
Many universities do not like the publicity associated with employment tribunals and settle out of court. This may come with non-disclosure agreements or gagging clauses, on which universities spent significant sums, according to The Guardian.
Legal action does not necessitate the hiring of solicitors. We know of examples of brave individuals who have successfully taken on their university in the employment tribunal. They have represented themselves and they have won.
However, we can also recommend solicitors who have a successful track record of winning claims against universities at employment tribunal. If you are a member of a Trade Union, you may also have access to a lawyer or legal support. This can be a good option if you are worried about costs.
It can feel daunting and lonely to take on a powerful university. The 21 Group is here to support you.