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#Reimagine Research: Prevent a bullying & harassment culture in Research

What research organisations can do to prevent exploitation, discrimination & harassment & create a more positive research culture.

by Viviane Joynes 3 min

    A new study commissioned by Wellcome has exposed a research culture of bullying and harassment, resulting an anxiety, stress and mental health problems. With over 4,000 survey participants, the findings are far reaching and will require a joined up and proactive effort by management, funders and those who conduct research to create a more collaborative and inclusive research culture. While the report raises many challenges, it also presents a clear opportunity for positive change.

    In this article, we look at what research organisations can do to prevent exploitation, discrimination, harassment and bullying and create a more positive research culture.

    Work culture in Research: study and key findings

    What Researchers Think About the Culture They Work In, was commissioned by Wellcome, a well-renowned research charity funding research to improve human and animal health.

    The key findings include:

    • 78% of researchers think that high levels of competition have created unkind and aggressive conditions.
    • Nearly two-thirds of researchers (61%) have witnessed bullying or harassment, and 43% have experienced it themselves.
    • Just one in three (37%) feel comfortable speaking up, with many doubting appropriate action will be taken.
    • Just over half of researchers (53%) have sought, or have wanted to seek, professional help for depression or anxiety.

    The impacts of bullying and harassment are far reaching. As well as affecting an individual’s wellbeing, there are other consequences when these behaviours become systemic, including poor performance, loss of productivity, damage to reputation, court cases and the list goes on. These are sobering statistics and an urgent call to universities and research institutions to review their culture.

    How can organisations prevent bullying and harassment?

    Across industries and particularly following the financial crisis, promoting healthy, sustainable cultures within organisations has been a key focus of regulators including the FCA for financial services and the FRC for listed companies. The view being that a healthy culture that promotes psychological safety and encourages ethical behaviour not only reduces the potential for harm but improves wellbeing and performance.

    Transforming culture is no easy task. However, there are practical steps that can be taken by organisations, including funders, to start the journey of creating collaborative, inclusive work environments that foster trust.

    • Understand why and take action – the first step is understanding why bullying and harassment have become so widespread. In this case, it would appear that short-term funding and an overly narrow focus on ‘impact’ from funders has created a highly competitive environment with clear winners and losers. This, along with some poor management practices has resulted in unhealthy behaviours. Organisations, including funders, should take an honest look at their practices, be open to receiving feedback, identify areas for improvement and put a strategy together.
    • Clear policies and procedures – Organisations need to ensure that their policies on grievance and disciplinary as well as bullying and harassment matters exist and are up to date. This ensures that employees know what to do when they face an issue and that they will be dealt with fairly. It’s important that the policies and procedures are easy to find (ideally online) and easy to read (avoid legal language). Ideally employees should confirm that they have read and understood the policies.
    • Ensure people can speak up safely and confidentially – One of the recommendations in the report is for organisations to offer an impartial space to raise concerns for those fearing reprisals for reporting poor behaviour. Introducing confidential and anonymous reporting channels (for example a telephone hotline and/or a secure webform) ensures that people have somewhere to report misconduct or poor behaviour. This becomes particularly important when they don’t feel they can report to their line managers. Let employees know that complaints be dealt with fairly, confidentially and sensitively. Also, dealing with reports promptly, keeping the reporter informed of outcomes and where possible, communicating outcomes of a report to the organisation (respecting confidentiality) can help build trust. It demonstrates that the issue is being taken seriously and the individuals reporting haven’t faced any negative repercussions.
    • Standards and principles of behaviour – Develop a code of conduct and principles that explain the standards of behaviour that are expected from all employees as well as behaviours that won’t be tolerated. Ideally, involve the workforce in coming up with these principles to help build trust, show that proactive steps are being taken and increase ownership of the principles across the organisation. Asking employees to sign up to the principles is more likely to affect behavioural change.
    • Tone from the top and leading by exampleLeadership and managers have a key role to play. Top management should address issues openly, seek feedback and take proactive steps. It’s key that leaders are seen to promote and support a healthy, inclusive culture that doesn’t tolerate negative behaviours such as harassment and bullying by ‘walking the walk’ as well as ‘talking the talk’. Promoting a consultative environment where people discuss issues openly is less likely to encourage bullying and harassment than authoritarian style management. Leaders can also ensure that guidance, training sessions and seminars are available for employees and managers.


    Building trust takes time. By analysing the root causes of negative behaviours such as bullying and harassment and seeking honest feedback, organisations can take proactive steps and put a strategy together to ensure that they prevent negative behaviours like bullying and harassment.

    As well as the recommendations in the Wellcome report, the research community can lean on other sectors such as the financial sector to learn from their experiences and cultural transformation success stories.

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    Viviane Joynes
    Viviane Joynes

    Managing Director – EQS Group | Viviane is Managing Director of EQS Group’s UK Business. She has extensive experience of advising UK and European companies on their corporate governance, compliance and IR practices. Prior to joining EQS Group her roles included heading up the IR Services at Capita Asset Services (now Link Asset Services) and being Managing Partner of a corporate governance and communications consultancy.