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April 6th, 2019:

Half time report – how are the senior managers doing with their response to the staff survey?

Southampton UCU have been collating feedback from colleagues about the senior management responses to staff survey. We learned that Arts and Humanities had a good feedback session, led by their Dean, as well as drop in sessions. It seems these were characterised by listening and recognition of the seriousness of some of the negative feedback provided in the survey. It was disappointing to hear staff in some other Schools/Faculties report less positive responses to feedback sessions. One member said their event consisted of “the senior team doing all the talking and no action plan”.

The problems identified in the survey are clear – and are predominantly about a lack of confidence and trust in the top team. The engagement plan, which appears to be designed to restate the survey results to ever smaller groups of frontline staff appears to be slightly missing the point. UCU continue to be concerned that senior management are not listening to feedback, or to frontline staff or students. We have again heard senior managers using the narrative “it was the VCs fault” and “the survey was last year and is out of date” as excuses to negate the important messages – which are consistent across surveys in previous years – about senior management failings. We think it is time that senior managers took responsibility for the problems created by the strategy and policies they have introduced.

We understand that one Dean has undertaken an alternative analysis of the text comments from the survey (which can only be circulated within the UEB due to ethics and data protection) and that this has produced helpful insights. We hope that all of UEB will look at this analysis to understand and respond to the comments so that these responses to the survey are not wasted.

One of the big challenges for senior managers here is the organisational culture in which staff still do not feel supported to speak up. Feedback about problems and constructive criticism are often ignored or punished. UCU would like to know what the senior managers are planning to do to restore trust.

Bullying

One interesting response that some senior managers have made to the survey results concerns bullying. It has been suggested that ‘the problem’ is academic staff bullying of Academic related professional staff (ARPS). This is not our reading of the survey results, or our experience from casework with members who have been bullied (who include ARPS and Academic staff at different grades). We are aware that the loss of frontline staff, and poorly managed organisational change has increased the stress and pressure on all staff, and wonder if addressing these problems might reduce poor interactions and improve working relationships. But beyond this we also believe that all staff need better anti-bullying training. More work needs to be done to find out about the nature of bullying and harassment at the University, especially to understand why some places (e.g. WSA) appear to have higher reported rates of bullying, but this needs to be approached carefully and cannot be done in the large or focus group format of the current engagement meetings.

Improved communication from the interim VC and UEB

We have been reading with interest the new UEB blogs and this is a step in the right direction, making senior management activity more transparent. However some of the current content is rather superficial and has been derided as ‘pretend communications’. Staff here would welcome UEB reports that provide more than an annotated agenda and tell us what is being done to respond to staff and student concerns. UCU also welcome the new all staff emails from Mark Spearing as interim VC although we note that the subject line could be better labelled to prevent these emails from becoming lost in the daily avalanche of emails. (Perhaps instead of ‘My Monthly Email’ it could say ‘VCs update’?).  Communication between senior management and staff  has been highlighted as a problem area in the survey, and information sharing is one response to this. Staff here would welcome more self-critical reflection by UEB and the interim VC about management decisions that have led to the distrust and lack of confidence identified in the staff survey – this would show us that they have understood the results of the survey.

To address the question posed in the title of this blog. How are our senior managers doing? We feel there are few moves in the right direction, but sadly still a lot of evidence that the messages from the survey have not been understood, so there is still a way to go.