University staff concerns heeded

The University of Otago has set up a new complaints process in response to staff concerns about the behaviour of a senior director.

The revelation a new ''resolution process'' had been put in place in the Marketing and Communications division was detailed in a letter sent by chief operating officer John Patrick to staff in the division on Wednesday and subsequently leaked to the Otago Daily Times.

The leak comes after the division's director Virginia Nicholls was accused at an Employment Relations Authority hearing last month of bullying and being responsible for a ''toxic'' environment in her division.

The new complaints process was put in place in response to issues raised in a letter by TEU organiser Shaun Scott to university vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne just after the hearing.

Mr Scott was critical of a process set up to resolve issues uncovered by a review of the division by lawyer David Sim.

The process involved staff being asked to make any complaints directly to Mr Patrick.

''As we predicted, complaints and concerns were not forthcoming, as the threat of restructuring or disciplinary action had the effect of enforcing silence on the staff,'' Mr Scott wrote.

In a letter to Mr Patrick in April, Mr Scott said members ''do not feel safe raising complaints, given the clear message that any 'frivolous' or 'vexatious' complaints will not be viewed well''.

The letter to Prof Hayne said morale was ''low'' for many staff in the division and the issues raised in the Sim report had not been resolved.

Outlining the new complaints process in the letter to staff this week, Mr Patrick said ''all concerns'' would be taken at ''face value'' and ''there will be no implications for people raising a reasonable and genuinely-held concern''.

''Whilst we do not necessarily fully accept Shaun's comments, our primary concern is for the wellbeing of staff and morale in the Division.

''To that end, we have decided to introduce a process whereby staff can raise concerns in a manner that they might feel is more safe for them.''

The new process, which would be trialled until June, was based on the university's ethical behaviour policy, which specified people, including a human resources adviser and a mediator, who could assist staff in deciding how a matter should be dealt with.

''In addition, our employment agreements state that, if people have a problem with their employment, they should raise it with their manager,'' Mr Patrick's letter said.

The university's provost Prof Bob Knight had also agreed to be a contact person staff could discuss their concerns with.

''We have asked Prof Knight to keep a confidential record of any contact he has with staff so we can monitor how many and what type of concerns are being raised,'' he said.

Mr Patrick finished the letter by saying: ''Hopefully we will make good progress towards our aim of improving management/staff relationships in the division.''

In response to questions about the new process, university human resources director Kevin Seales said: ''We take the concerns of staff and issues raised by the TEU seriously.

It is our hope that this resolutions process helps to make good progress towards our aim of improving relationships in the division.''

-vaughan.elder@odt.co.nz

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