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Confidential counsellors advise Executive Board

How can confidential counsellors gain a more prominent position in Leiden University? And how can we make sure that staff know where to find them. These and other questions were on the agenda at a conference for confidential counsellors on 15 February.

‘Something needs to happen.' Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker did not beat about the bush when he opened the ‘Gebondenheid in vertrouwen’ conference. 'Often we lack the skills to hold one another to account for our behaviour. As a result, abuses come to light much too late. We can't allow that to continue out of fear that we will otherwise damage the University's reputation. If people say that they feel unsafe at work or in their studies, the reputation of the University is the least of my worries.' 

Sociologist Kees Schuyt

Lack of clarity about tasks 

More than sixty staff at Leiden University - including many confidential counsellors and members of the University Council -came together on 15 February in HUBspot to discuss the roles and tasks of confidential counsellors. All too often there seems to be a lack of clarity about the tasks of these counsellors and about the skills the position calls for. People are also unsure how the work of the different counsellors is related. That's worrying because students and staff go to the confidential counsellors with their biggest worries: sexual intimidation, research fraud or isues in the work environment. 

‘One common problem in organisations is that there is too little separation between the people who advise and those who investigate or make decisions,' sociologist Kees Schuyt said in his keynote speech. Until 2014 he was a member of the Board of Governors of Leiden University. 'You need a kind of firewall between these three roles. A confidential counsellor cannot also be the person who  investigates a complaint and he or she should definitely not make decisions about sanctions or subsequent steps. At the same time, the confidential counsellor has to be allowed to do his or her work, without somebody else in authority - the dean, for example - getting involved.' 

Balance between distance and approachability

There also has to be a clear physical separation: it would be unthinkable for the confidential counsellor to also be an immediate colleague, particularly not a superior or someone in the same corridor. There has to be a certain distance if confidentiality is to be effective. At the same time, a confidential counsellor should be easy to approach, which is the reason why the Faculty of Humanities decided to appoint a confidential counsellor specially for PhD candidates. It's not easy to strike the right balance between distance and approachability. 

Participant Karin Guijt, herself head of P&O at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, commented that P&O advisers at times also come up against the dilemmas that Kees Schuyt described. Employees do dare to speak out to P&O, but only anonymously for fear of reprisals. At the same time the accused has the right to know what he or she is accused of. That's difficult if you can't reveal the name of the complainant. 'It sometimes means that there is no prospect of being able to deal with a complaint. It would be better if we could find a way of making it more a matter of course to start an investigation if a number of complaints are made on the same theme in the same place.' 

Clearer dividing lines

Fortunately the various break-out groups also produced a lot of possible solutions. The confidential counsellors agreed that the dividing lines between giving advice, carrying out an investigation and making a decision should be more clear cut, as Schuyt advised. Also, the roles and tasks of the different confidential counsellors should be set out more simply and in clearer terms, and then better communicated. 

Participants at the conference also had some recommendations for the Executive Board. Would it not be a good idea for confidenetial counsellors to work in pairs so that there is always a back-up if you have a working relationship with one of the two? And could there be a central point where you can go with a question and be referred to the best person for your particular complaint? Other participants also called for a distinction between 'trusted individuals' who are deeply embedded in the organisation and can give advice, and official confidential counsellors who are at a bit more of a distance. 

University Council and Executive Board

The findings and outcomes of the conference will be shared in the short term with various relevant consultation bodies within the University. Before the conference, the University Council had specifically asked the Executive Board for the role of confidential counsellors to be set out more clearly.  

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