Monday, 28 June 2010

The Psychology of Suspension

It was close to this time last year that I heard the very welcome news that a member of staff in Salford Business School, who was at the time suspended (unfairly in my own view and that of many others) had attended his graduation ceremony where he received his award for successfully completing his PhD. I know that many of his work colleagues were at the ceremony to support and congratulate him on completing his studies which I think was a real triumph against the worst kind of adversity.

It was the worst of times... it was well, the worst of times!

Over the past year I have also faced circumstances that to say the very least have been testing. Of all the events of last year concerning my suspension and dismissal, I consider the events surrounding my suspension as a student as particularly petty and nasty. I'd like to take this opportunity to look at the process of suspension as it relates to my case, and try as objectively as I can, to give a taste of the impact it had and rather perversely, continues to have on me.

The long and winding road... to submission

I was suspended as a member of staff at the University of Salford in May 2009 for authoring a satirical newsletter or two critical of management. I was also suspended a second time in mid June 2009 as a student ostensibly for the same thing. At the time, I was finalising my PhD thesis in anticipation of submission in July 2009. I was sacked in August after a disciplinary hearing. It was a very worrying time as I also stood to lose the fruits of several years of hard work as a post-grad. Being suspended as a student with no prospect of gaining my PhD also meant that I was denied the immediate opportunity of applying for work as a lecturer at other universities. The long process of winning the right to submit and be awarded my PhD has taken almost a full year. Throughout these particularly stressful months, senior managers used the Code of Conduct for Students 2008, postponement of my case combined with continued suspension to deny me access to the University grounds,postgraduate library and IT facilities. A year on, despite the dropping of all proceedings under the Code of Conduct for Students in May of this year, I find I am still denied access to University premises, events and services including my graduation ceremony. Their justification for this? That I am taking the University to an Employment Tribunal in September/October 2010!

The psychology of suspension

Before I deal with what I think are some very serious issues, let me start by saying that suspension is a terrible thing. The most deleterious aspect of suspension is the isolation that it immediately instils in the individual. No longer can one meet with colleagues in the workplace. You are removed from the students whom you have taught for the past year or so, who value you and your expertise. You are removed from the very job you have been training yourself to do for many years. You are neither employed or unemployed. You are in limbo. The everyday socialising that is taken for granted - a cup of coffee with friends and colleagues in the cafe or the office - the Cappuccino Effect to borrow a phrase - is gone. More psychologically debilitating is the feeling that you are in this on your own. How on earth does one build support among colleagues if you can't even meet with them? Further, suspension is a little like having been passed the black spot by Blind Pew. Colleagues and students feel that in associating with you, that they may also fall under suspicion of managers. Many people have related this fear to me over the past year. You become the white elephant not in the room! Suspension is an act that I would argue both inhibits the individual and instils wider collective fear. Hardly the best recipe for employer-employee relations.

The case of University coffers - v - empty pockets

Although an elected UCU officer, my own union would not officially represent me in defending myself in response to the allegations made by the University against me. And what were these allegations? That in writing the satirical newsletters, I had bullied two members of staff and brought the University into disrepute which I categorically denied. I had to defend myself with little in the way of resourcing. However, since my dismissal, I have had the opportunity to wade through hundreds of documents supplied to me by the University under a Data Protection Request. It's been an enlightening process. It's very clear that the University had secured expensive legal advice at many stages of the process in order to ensure that their case against me was airtight. Other documents show that they had even secured the services of a freelance Public Relations person to ensure they received positive press during the process. I assume that these services do not come cheaply. At the time I was oblivious to all this. I'd never been suspended or disciplined in my entire life. Having glimpsed what was going on behind closed doors, I now realise that I could not match the sums the University were spending on their advice. For the duration of the staff disciplinary process I was suspended on no pay. Being on a part-time hourly paid contract that ended in May the month of my suspension, meant that in contrast to full-timers who would automatically be suspended with full pay, I wasn't entitled to this. Thus I argue, at the most basic level, the disciplinary procedure discriminates heavily against some of the most vulnerable employees - those in what we might describe as precarious employment.

Does the disciplinary process discriminate against employees?

There is however something far more invidious regarding the use of suspension, which was particularly pertinent to my own case. The current Disciplinary Procedure states that:

"Suspension should only occur in exceptional circumstances i.e. where it is deemed necessary to suspend the individual to allow the investigation to be carried out. Any such suspension would be on full pay, for as short a period as possible, and would not constitute disciplinary action nor be prejudicial to the process." (12.1, 2008 Disciplinary Procedure, University of Salford)

In accordance with this part of the DP and wishing to put together a half-decent defence, after the investigation had been completed in June, I asked that the suspension now be removed. I was told that I would continue to be suspended on an ongoing basis because of the serious nature of the allegations made against me. Again, I am of the opinion that the decision of the University to continue the suspension, had a detrimental impact on my ability to conduct a defence. I was suspended as a staff member up to the day of my dismissal.

Further obstacles to a fair hearing

The scheduling of the disciplinary hearing also weighed heavily against fairness, as it had been scheduled during summer recess. I informed the Dean of Faculty and HR Link Officer with regard to this matter but my concerns were not taken seriously. By any standard, any organisation which wanted to ensure a fair procedure would have considered this incongruity, and have ensured that the hearing was rescheduled to allow me the best possible access to colleagues and potential witnesses. At least two of the people I wished to call as witnesses were out of the country over the summer recess. Although I was told that I would be allowed reasonable access to prepare my case (access to witnesses etc in line with the provisions of the DP) this 'access' became increasingly contingent, to the point where the Dean who had suspended me, asked me to provide him with details of where, when and whom I was planning to speak or meet with. I was not prepared to provide any names because of the the very real fear expressed to me by colleagues of recriminations. This caveat (note - not part of the official DP) was not exactly conducive to interviewing potential witnesses to build a defence. My dismissal in August thus came as no real surprise.

You have the right to join a union... but you may be denied access to your branch when you most need it

The decision to take the University to an Employment Tribunal wasn't taken

lightly.Preparing for an Employment Tribunal is a huge and complex undertaking. Without any funding, access to the UCU branch offices in order to photocopy vast numbers of documents in duplicate or triplicate is essential. Providing these documents are a statutory requirement as part of the ET. What I hadn't factored into this equation was the ongoing denial of access to the UCU branch offices and facilities. Their reasoning was impeccable. According to the University, as I was no longer an employee, I had no automatic right of access to University premises. As the UCU offices were on University grounds, I therefore had no right of access to them! Moreover, I was still a student, albeit one who was suspended. The University were in no hurry to progress the student disciplinary process postponing the process time and again. Their argument for not progressing this case rested on conflating my status as former employee and that as a student. To me, the two were completely separate. I was student long before I had been employed by the University. Yet despite the recent dropping of student proceedings against me, the reality of this logic is that I am still barred from University grounds and union branch offices, to which I still contribute my subscriptions every month. The overriding question here is does this seem in the least bit fair?

A year on - what lessons have been learned?

What has become increasingly clear to me over the past year is the role suspension plays in weighing the disciplinary process heavily in favour of the employer. When we consider that in addition, the University as the employer has at its disposal vast financial, infrastructural and human resources to draw upon, the chances of the employee having a fair hearing within the internal procedure is in my view very slim indeed. In my case I had only the very welcome help and support of my family, a few friends and the invaluable support of a very good and long-time friend who has helped build and shape my case with me.

Again I can only speak in my case but suspension and long-term suspension inhibited terribly my ability to gain access to vital witnesses and facilities in order to prepare for and conduct a decent defence. It has had a massive impact upon my own mental health. For the first time in my life I was prescribed anti-depressants. I know it has had similar or more devastating effects on others employees at Salford who have similarly fallen foul of managers using this nasty piece of the disciplinary procedure.

This is a serious issue and together the campus unions need to address it head-on as well as other glaring anomalies within what I see is a disciplinary procedure that is far from fit for purpose. If not, how will our unions be able claim that they independent from management when the disciplinary procedure allows senior managers the right to use suspension, or ambiguities and misinterpretations of the procedures to veto access of trade unionists to our branch offices. We must fight to ensure that long-term suspension is only ever used in the most serious of cases and that the authority to suspend once again becomes the preserve of the Vice Chancellor and not the Vice Chancellor's designates.
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