Professor Caroline McMillen is the vice-chancellor of the University of Newcastle.
IN recent weeks, cars in the university car parks have been regularly plastered with flyers about bullying in the workplace and our students and staff have been corralled to rallies.
This is part of an ongoing anonymous campaign run through both virtual and other means to suggest that bullying is rife.
The university was deeply concerned to hear that an individual was moved to attempt self-harm at yesterday’s rally. It is always possible that such rallies may bring complex issues to the surface.
We can only request that organisers and supporters of yesterday’s rally reflect on whether such consequences related directly to their actions and whether they could have been foreseen and mitigated.
As the vice-chancellor, and as someone committed through my career in medicine, research and academia to the values of integrity, fairness and social justice, it is now time to make some things clear.
Let’s be clear that our university is a remarkable and rewarding place to work for more than 6400 staff who feel absolutely passionate about what they do through their research, their teaching and as professional staff. They have told us this directly – in our 2012 survey of our staff, 80per cent expressed ‘‘strong job satisfaction’’.
Let’s also be clear that we are not perfect. In any large organisation with 6400 staff and 36,000-plus students, there will be times when unacceptable behaviour occurs, which does not meet our own or community standards.
What can start out as an interpersonal conflict can sometimes spiral and firmly held professional opinions can lead to strong disagreements.
As in all organisations of our size and complexity, inappropriate behaviours can impact negatively on other colleagues and, if unchecked, can lead to bullying, harassment and, in some cases, victimisation.
In 2012, the university had seven cases of bullying lodged through our Complaints Resolution Process. Of these cases, only three have been upheld.
But let’s be clear – bullying is never acceptable.
Our responsibility as an employer is to ensure we have the leadership, culture and best systems in place to support the psychological and physical health of our staff and students.
It is important that disagreements are worked through respectfully before they develop into behaviours, which are not appropriate.
We are also conscious of the need to support our managers with practical toolkits and procedures – our managers are in the front line every day and they need support.
As was made clear in the recent House of Representatives standing committee report on workplace bullying, bullying can occur upwards, downwards and horizontally in organisations.
There also needs to be protection and support for all parties, particularly after investigations are completed. Those who need support may include someone who has been subjected to unacceptable behaviour, but also those who may be subject to unfounded allegations that they are bullies – often made in the public domain by individuals who can choose to remain anonymous.
Cyberbullying is one area that has been recognised to be of increasing concern and, as recent tragic cases have shown, the community is right to consider this silent and cowardly form of bullying is also unacceptable in work and life.
The university has a duty of care to all of its employees, which it takes seriously, and, on behalf of all our employees, we ask the core group of individuals who organised yesterday’s rally, which has led to significant distress, to reflect on their own behaviour.
Finally let’s be clear, the University of Newcastle does not tolerate bullying or harassment.
When asked if we should remove those posters and flyers from our car parks or noticeboards, I was clear that we should not.
Free speech and open debate are hallmarks of any good university and are the foundation of any tolerant and respectful community.