Ensure ‘joined-up’ handling of disputes

Clear definition of responsibilities

Joined up thinking: If your administration is divided into sections with specialist responsibilities (for example, HR, student matters, estates, contracts) what provision do you make to ensure that a dispute which affects more than one section is dealt with across the relevant boundaries?

Scope for initiative: is it clear to administrative staff where they may use their initiative and if they are expected to clear action with a line manager, how to do so and get a speedy response?

Route maps

Managers: why not browse topics dealing with areas you are unfamiliar with? Get to know the triggers of disputes.

Do students and staff have confidence that know where to go within the institution for advice they can trust when a dispute begins?

Do the sections of your administration know how to make contact with one another about particular aspects of the problem when a dispute begins?

In a group of administrative staff from different sections of your administration work through examples, discussing who should have checked what with whom to avoid a dispute arising or to ensure that it was dealt with quickly.

Within the bounds of your confidentiality policy, and where appropriate with the consent of the individuals involved, hold regular reviews of disputes in your institution to check whether sufficient progress is being made in a timely manner and whether you are ensuring that the dispute is not escalating as a result of foreseeable failures of checking and cross-checking within the administration.

You will find many examples as you explore the IDRAS web site under Your Stories. Examples are also available on the OIA website (students) ( www.oiahe.org.uk )  and in the ARMED materials (students and staff). If you have an institutional subscription to legal databases, the Industrial Cases Reports and the Industrial Relations Law Reports can be a useful source of ‘narratives’ of employment cases.

Getting started on joined-up handling of disputes

Dr X was a lecturer in the Faculty of Business Studies. The Faculty’s courses were popular and competition for places intense. Responding to demand, the Head of the Faculty suggested to his team that a programme of evening and weekend classes should be developed. Dr X was one of the few lecturers to volunteer for this
initiative. He developed a series of MBA evening classes, which were conducted on the institution’s premises and advertised in its prospectus
(based on ARMED example).

  • Did anyone check when rooms were booked that the activity they were to be used for was appropriate and permitted?
  • Did the Head of Faculty or the appropriate person check that the process for the design and approval of the courses given under the University’s degree-awarding powers had been followed
  • Did anyone check, for example with the Head of Faculty that the insertion of the MBA details in the prospectus had been authorized?
  • Did anyone check on the admission and registration process for this course?

Dr X collected the tuition fees from the students attending his classes at the end of each class. Rather than passing them on to the University’s finance department he kept them, tending to see them as overtime pay. His contract of employment with the institution required him to account to the institution for all fees which he personally
received in respect of tuition delivered by the institution, but in practice this rule was widely flouted. The faculty heads were conscious that lecturers’ pay at the institution was slipping behind that of neighbouring, richer institutions and had become accustomed to turning a blind eye to such practices.

  • Who was checking that fees were safely banked at the end of the evening?
  • Who was asking Dr. X to pass on his register each week to the finance division, so that the institution could see how many fees were due?

As a result of an incautious remark by Dr X while collecting fees one evening, Dr X’s assistant realised that he was keeping the fees. Having waited in vain for the Head of Faculty to respond to her e-mail on the subject, she alerted the HEFCE.

  • How confident can you be that uncomfortable or ‘difficult’ emails sent to them in an official capacity will be dealt with promptly by academics?
  • Did the Head of Faculty realise that this was a public interest disclosure?
  • What should he have done to ensure that the matter was investigated internally and promptly and did not need to be referred to HEFCE?

The resulting investigation concluded that the practice was widespread within the institution, that it was in breach of contract and amounted to a misuse of public funds.
The National Audit Office began an investigation and its findings were reported widely in the national media.

  • Could the university have limited reputational damage at this point by learning its lessons and announcing that it was doing so?

Dr X’s contract was terminated and he subsequently succeeded in a claim of unfair dismissal.

  • Did Human Resources make sure a disciplinary process was fairly conducted before terminating Dr. X’s contract?

Dr X’s assistant kept her job but was ostracised by the Head of Faculty, resigned and subsequently left academic life altogether.

  • What practical steps could have been taken to ensure that the ‘whistleblower’ did not suffer victimization?
  • Did the Head of Faculty know that she could have made a complaint of victimization to an Employment Tribunal without resigning?

Was the Head of Faculty given training to fill the gaps in his understanding of his responsibilities when all this began?