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14 July 2022

Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences: advisory report on social safety in academia

    To combat inappropriate behaviour at academic institutions, much more needs to be done in the way of prevention. The current approach focuses mainly on handling complaints, but social safety at universities and research institutes can only really be improved by making workplace behaviour a systematic subject of discussion. 

    That calls for a different culture, anchored in a new way of providing leadership. At the request of the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (the “Academy”) has published Social Safety in Dutch Academia: From Paper to Practice, a guide with recommendations and tips for preventing or tackling inappropriate behaviour at an early stage. Its purpose is to initiate a process for increasing social safety in Dutch academia.

    Inappropriate behaviour is a persistent problem in the academic context too: the heavy workload distracts from effective cooperation. Close dependency relationships encourage abuse of power. Board members, managers, those reporting a problem and “onlookers”, HR staff, and confidential counsellors find it difficult to get a clear idea of inappropriate behaviour; above all, they feel uneasy and powerless when confronted by it.

    With the new guide, the Academy aims to assist in understanding the forces within the organisation and culture of academia that trigger and perpetuate these problems. In this way, it becomes clear how one can work, step by step, to counteract them. One should not wait, for example, until something is seriously wrong but should constantly focus on what behaviour is in fact desirable. That is the only way to alter behaviour – preventively – at an early stage, and to learn lessons if one is unable to take effective action.

    To bring about such a cultural change, it is necessary to anchor it within the organisation, which has the task of testing and developing the professional skills of its employees as regards relationships, emotions, and communication. Managers set an example and are responsible for effective cooperation within their team.

    Social safety is a prerequisite for good science. It is only in a socially safe environment that people can share knowledge and the qualities of all members of the team can come into their own. Moreover, the costs of inappropriate behaviour are high, in terms of the wellbeing and productivity of the people involved, confidence in managers, and the organisation’s reputation, as well as financially. According to the guide’s calculations, the latter can run to hundreds of thousands of euros.

    Social Safety in Dutch Academia: From Paper to Practice offers an analysis and recommendations for the organisational structure, the workplace culture, and the systems needed to address inappropriate issues. In addition, it presents practical guidance for everyone to get started with doing so. The guide provides examples taken from the experience of deans, people who have reported a problem, confidential counsellors and others, as well as a clear ‘first-aid kit’ for dealing with inappropriate behaviour.

    Naomi Ellemers about the advisory report

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    The guide was drawn up by a committee led by Naomi Ellemers, a social and organisational psychologist and professor at Utrecht University. The other members of the committee were Frank Baaijens (Eindhoven University of Technology), Huub Dijstelbloem (University of Amsterdam), Yvonne Erkens (Leiden University), Halleh Ghorashi (VU Amsterdam), Sandra Groeneveld (Leiden University), Marian Joëls (University Medical Center Groningen), and Michael Wise (Netherlands Institute for Space Research).


    Contact for the press: Irene van Houten (Academy’s Communication Department), +31 (0)6 1137 5909, irene.van.houten@knaw.nl

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