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What can a confidential counsellor do for you?

It’s already in the name. Everything you tell a confidential counsellor is confidential. In fact, a confidential counsellor is even liable if they breach their duty of secrecy and confidentiality. Considering all the recent reports in Dutch media of unacceptable behaviour, more attention than ever is being paid to the role of the confidential counsellor within organisations. But what do we actually know about this position, and what can it do for you?

Marije Bedaux
Marije Bedaux

We asked Marije Bedaux, confidential counsellor for personnel affairs at Leiden University. Together with her colleagues, she’s a confidential counsellor for all staff, PhD students and postdocs working at the University.

What can you contact a confidential counsellor about?

‘There are different confidential counsellors to deal with different issues. The confidential counsellors for personnel affairs help with anything related to problems at work. For instance, experiencing excessive work pressure, a conflict with a colleague or manager, or if you disagree with your Performance and Development (ROG) assessment. A different confidential counsellor can help in cases of unacceptable behaviour – like aggression, intimidation (sexual or otherwise), or bullying.  

There’s also a confidential counsellor to whom you can report suspicion of malpractice; for example fraud, or excessive expenditure on a certain project. In addition, there are faculty confidential counsellors for PhD students and postdocs. They are the point of contact for issues concerning academic integrity.

Are you a confidential counsellor for all these matters?

‘Together with my colleague Nadia, I’m the confidential counsellor for employment-related matters such as contracts, a conflict at work etc. If the problem concerns things like sexual intimidation, aggression, violence, bullying or discrimination, I refer the person to the confidential counsellor for unacceptable behaviour.’

What skills does a confidential counsellor need?

As a confidential counsellor, besides offering an empathetic and experienced ear, you provide advice and point the way to other points of assistance. So you need to be fully aware of the organisation’s set-up. What are the work relationships, what problems can you face as a PhD student or postdoc, and when is it appropriate (or not), to pass on a signal to the Faculty Board, for instance? As a confidential counsellor, you’re familiar with all roles within the University and everyone should feel free to come to you; from receptionist to professor, I always say.’

What should you not expect from a confidential counsellor?

‘I’m always clear about what I can and can’t do for someone. Sometimes people expect that we can solve everything, but that’s not how it works. As a confidential counsellor, I listen to the employee and provide assistance. If the person so wishes, I can accompany them to ‘difficult’ meetings – not to speak on their behalf, but to provide moral support. Of course, I can help out if the person gets into difficulties at such a meeting. What I can’t do, and am not allowed to do, is interfere in a legal conflict involving a lawyer.’ 

Is this the same for unacceptable behaviour?

'No, the confidential counsellor for unacceptable behaviour will provide full support if you decide to submit a complaint to the complaints committee for unacceptable behaviour. This committee was set up by the University to safeguard a pleasant and stimulating environment for both staff and students. Responding appropriately to any unacceptable behaviour is necessary to achieve this aim.'

Should you always make a complaint about unacceptable behaviour?

‘No, that’s not the first thing a confidential counsellor will tell you. To start with, it’s very time-consuming and also emotionally demanding. The outcome is not always satisfactory because it doesn’t always solve the problem. My advice is always to first speak to the person  about their behaviour. If that’s not possible, talk to a colleague or your manager, and you can of course always go to a confidential counsellor. Fortunately, more attention is being paid to creating an open and healthy environment in which everyone feels safe enough to stand up for themselves and speak out. In recent years, the University has taken considerable steps to strengthen the position of confidential counsellors and pay more attention to them.‘

What makes this role interesting for you?

‘It’s very nice to help people who come to me by listening and giving them tools. I notice that many people are glad and feel they have been heard after we have talked together. We help mainly by giving the right answers to questions like: what’s the best thing I can do now, what options do I have, or where should I turn to for legal assistance etc. Just listening, showing understanding and offering perspective can help a lot.’

Do you have a final tip for staff?

‘Don’t wait too long before getting help if you’re experiencing a problem at work. The longer you wait, they greater the likelihood the problem will escalate. So speak up!’

Imagine witnessing unacceptable behaviour, like bullying, (sexual) harassment, belittling, discrimination etc. It’s pretty hard to be the one to speak up. So how can you keep yourself from freezing, looking away? How do you challenge inappropriate behaviour and become an active bystander? Register now for the Let's Connect webinar: The Active Bystander

If you aren’t sure who to turn to when experiencing a problem at work, go to: Helpline for support and advice about workplace issues.

Would you like to find out more about confidential counsellors and how to contact them, read: Advice from a confidential counsellor.


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