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To mark Anti-Bullying week in November we caught up with the department's harassment officers to find out how issues can be dealt with and working relationships can heal and grow.

Esteemed Professors Catherine Harmer and Phil Cowen have an additional, but not very well-known role within the Department as our harassment officers. Ruth Abrahams interviewed them to coincide with national Anti Bullying Week, which is 14-18 November.

At the end of this Q&A are free resources and training provided by the university to refresh learning and understanding of some of these issues.

RA: What do your roles as welfare officers involve?

PC: We’re a first point of contact and we’re supported by the structures of the Medical Sciences Division. But we don’t mediate between the person and the harasser.

I think we can all be in situations like that where we can say something without thinking, or with a certain tone of voice, and sometimes feedback enables you to do things in a slightly different way. And so in the best case it would be something where the person wasn’t aware of what they were doing, and by flagging it up and discussing it without judgment, that person is allowed to adapt and amend some aspects of their behaviour that were intimidating or perceived as bullying.- Catherine Harmer

CH: We represent the harassment and welfare officers for the department, which means that we are first port of call for anyone who believes that they are experiencing bullying or harassment. So we are an in-between for the people who are involved and the university harassment line, which has the more formal structures for people seeking help resolving these kinds of situations.

RA: How do you navigate situations where there may appear to be ambiguity?

PC: The first task is to see the situation from the point of view of the person who believes they are being harassed, to get into their frame of reference, because your job is to support and understand them.

CH: And you also need to remain neutral to all parties involved because it is not our role to form a judgment about who’s right. The idea is to respect everyone involved in this situation and to try to allow them to resolve any issues together informally.

RA: How can situations be resolved well?

CH: I suppose the best case would be where, perhaps there has been a misunderstanding, or where raising this as a concern allows the person in that situation to recognise that their behaviours may have a negative impact on another person.

So that would be the best possible outcome, but of course there are other cases which would be completely different. For example if someone was systematically belittling or harassing somebody and that was part of an ongoing behaviour, then that would be a more difficult situation to resolve, but luckily we haven’t had any cases like that in the department since we have been in this role. In that case you really do need to draw on the wider expertise of the structures within the university to help you, who are experts in that kind of welfare process.

RA: Are people sometimes unaware of the impact their behaviour has on others?

CH: Yes, I think this is true not just at work, but generally as human beings we are all sometimes not aware of the impact we have on other people.

RA: Is there any advice that you could give to managers or people with a more senior role in terms of considering their behaviours in relation to this?

CH: The advice is to have as much respect for people at all different stages of their career, and to treat everyone with dignity and allow people to be individuals as well as being part of the workforce. When you’re managing a group or a team, there’s not one right way of supervising every single group of people in that team. The best managers or team leaders are flexible in how they deal with people and adapt to the way in which they want to work and support them and foster a feeling of mutual respect.

I think trying to encourage that within the group – not just between you and the student or individual, but trying to encourage peer support and peer discussion actually fosters a very nice working environment for everybody within it. Academia can be quite a competitive environment. Sometimes people can be encouraged to pit against each other and to not be supportive and not help one another. It’s more productive, in my opinion, if people are working together. There will always be things that you’re good at and someone else isn’t, and vice-versa. And that’s true of the people managing the people – nobody’s perfect.

Continuing to reflect on your own role is very important. Thinking about whether things are working well, and if not, what you could do to support that. Maybe taking time to think about your own behaviour. Treating people in a very human way is something that we should all aspire to do.

It’s important to be aware of power imbalances, if you’re the person managing others - to treat people with kindness and sensitivity. And for older people like me, to realise that there has been a shift from a relatively authoritarian model to one which is more team-based and democratic. - Phil Cowen

RA: Is there any advice you could give to the more junior members of the department?

PC: I think it’s the same message really – to treat other people with kindness and respect. To be aware that there’s much diversity within research teams now, and to welcome that and see it as a positive force.

CH: Yes, and to not encourage a culture of silence. So if there are things going wrong sometimes people can feel that they can’t come forward or discuss it, but we should recognise that people have the power to come forward and to change things.

PC: And also people can raise concerns with each other. We all make mistakes in social interaction, and it’s quite alright to bring it up if a colleague has said something that has upset you. Hopefully people will be able to learn from that in an informal way about what other people need from you in terms of a working relationship. It’s often said that you should treat the other person the way you want to be treated yourself, but particularly in a diverse workforce you have to remember that the other person isn’t necessarily like you and they might want something different. 

So you can see these interactions as opportunities to learn and become a more effective person at work. There is an old Greek idea that you can train virtuous behaviour, in this case that behaving well towards others can become part of who you are. I’d really like to think that’s true and that working in an exciting and friendly Department like ours can facilitate the process.  


Anti bullying Week 2016 is 14-18 Nov 2016 with the theme 'power for good' and is organised by Anti-Bullying Alliance. Follow the events on social media using #antibullyingweek and #powerforgood.

The Department’s cake sale to support ‘Anti-Bullying week’ will be held on Wednesday 16th November 11am-midday in the Common Room. Proceeds will go to the National Bullying Helpline.



Click here to see the university’s full policy on bullying and harassment.

Refresh with: Challenging Behaviour: Dealing with bullying and harassment in the workplace

An online training course designed to give you a better understanding of:

  • The legal and moral responsibilities of all staff
  • The knowledge and skills necessary to work successfully as part of a diverse team
  • Why certain behaviours are inappropriate
  • The damage caused by bullying and harassment
  • How to respond to inappropriate behaviour
  • The tools to recognise and put a stop to bullying and harassment

Little things matter: The impact of micro-behaviours and micro-inequities

Four short videos that explore micro-behaviours and micro-inequities and the important part they play in our working relationships, and in addressing diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

The videos illustrate the impact of unconscious bias on organisational dynamics and individual performance, with realistic workplace scenarios and expert analysis. They will help you to:

  • Understand the impact of unconscious bias on day-to-day workplace interactions and the effect these may have on others;
  • Self-regulate your behaviour to avoid negative impacts and foster positive interactions.

Lynda playlists: Assertiveness and Difficult Conversation is an online learning resource provided by IT Services, offering a range of online learning materials on personal and professional development topics in addition to the technical IT topics promoted by IT Services. Two playlists of particular relevance to Harassment are Assertiveness and Difficult Conversation, see OLI website for more information.



Please follow the link below to read the news on the NIHR BRC website.