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Designated ombudsperson to facilitate reports on inappropriate behaviour

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Bullying, abuse of power, sexual harassment: university employees can be faced with all kinds of inappropriate behaviour. From next summer, they will be able to turn to a designated, independent ombudsperson.

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Although inappropriate behaviour in the workplace is common, students and staff don’t always report it out of fear of damaging their careers or simply because they don’t know where to turn. The recent case of the UU professor forced to resign over complaints about inappropriate behaviour is a good example: both the accusers and the defendant are dissatisfied with the complaint procedure.

Just about everyone thinks something needs to be done about this issue. A collective labour agreement has therefore determined that each university must employ an independent ombudsperson for this specific purpose before July 1, 2021.

Four Dutch universities have already done so as an experiment. Now that the pilot is completed, universities and trade unions have made agreements about the new function, according to a letter sent by Minister of Education Ingrid Van Engelshoven to the House of Representatives right before the holidays.

The ombudspersons are to become completely independent and report directly to the Executive Board. They can also decide to investigate complaints themselves. With this new measure, universities and trade unions hope to enable the ombudsperson to identify patterns of inappropriate behaviour.

Three days
But then come the practical questions. Where exactly will this person work? It would be nice if the ombudsperson had their own office on campus, because they must be easy to reach, but at the same time, employees must also be able to visit them “inconspicuously”.

Besides, will this person get enough hours paid for this work? After all, they will have to do quite a lot. By way of illustration, the ombudsperson at Erasmus University Rotterdam has no fewer than six roles: advisor, referrer, facilitating discussion leader, complaints handler, mediator and researcher.

The four current officials from the pilot experiment have been appointed for a period of two or three years, for 12 to 20 hours a week, which isn’t always enough, according to the assessment. In order to really tackle the problem, the ombudsperson should work at least three days a week.

Last but not least, the ombudspersons in the pilot asked to be given some time. It takes three to five years before they can assess what happened and initiate a culture change.

Students included
The universities and trade unions have agreed that the ombudsperson shouldn’t only be there for employees, but for students, too. A new evaluation of the ombudsman function is set to take place at the end of 2022.

The minister is optimistic. So much so that she thinks this would also be a good idea for the universities of applied sciences (hogescholen), with whom she will discuss the possibility of running a similar experiment, as requested by the House of Representatives.

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