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A first year as ombuds officer: ‘If we don’t talk about feeling unsafe, things will only fester’

For over a year now, ombuds officer Marjan van Dasselaar has been devoting her efforts to a safer work environment at the university. What are her first impressions of this period? ‘People should feel free to call me sooner and more often, also for seemingly trivial situations.’

How is Leiden University doing in terms of dignity and respect? Ombuds officer Marjan van Dasselaar hasn’t yet come to any conclusions after such a relatively short period. ‘But I can see that awareness about the topic is growing. People are more likely to say: “Shouldn’t we discuss this together?”’

And this is a good development, she says, ‘Because talking about it is a success in itself. Staff sometimes say: “I can’t tell you my story because I’m scared of the consequences.” I definitely take these concerns seriously but hope that we can try anyway. Because in the past year, there were situations where a conversation really did help – without negative consequences for the person who reported the incident.’

‘Talking about it is a success in itself.

Back-and-forth emails

Twenty-eight incidents were reported to Marjan in 2022. Just over half of these related to feeling unsafe at the university, and experiences such as intimidation, bullying, gossiping, abuse of power or failing to keep agreements. She has not yet made use of her powers to conduct or commission an enquiry. ‘An enquiry is chiefly about the past but I prefer to look to the future: how can we proceed further, how can we make the workplace a better place to be? If you ask me, the conversation should be about how we solve this together rather than about the question of whether, for example, someone should leave.’

She can’t provide details about the cases she’s received because of privacy but she has made several recommendations in her recently published annual report. One is not to get bogged down in ‘poor communication’ but to reach out to each other more often. ‘Back-and-forth emails never help. Or worse still: when staff raise unsafe situations with their manager but receive no response whatsoever. If you don’t talk about problems, they fester and the situation only becomes more unsafe. Talking about things in time often makes them much easier to resolve. And such conversations sometimes already take out the sting: people often just want to be able to tell their side of their story.’

Help for managers

Another of Marjan’s recommendations is not to lose sight of the matter. ‘Dignity and respect is such a loaded topic that people are often scared of doing something wrong. This means conversations soon turn to whether we are following the right procedure instead of what is actually going wrong in the workplace.’

That staff have certain expectations of their manager is only logical, she says. ‘Managers are quite simply these people’s employers, aren’t they? Not all managers seem to realise this. The role of a manager requires a kind of awareness. It’s part of this role plain and simple to respond to questions and complaints and to deal with any criticism. This can be complicated but there is a lot of support available at the university for managers. They only have to use it.’

I was recently asked: “How bad should things be before I can contact you?” Well, if you think like that, you should have come to me a long time ago!’

If in doubt, call

Marjan can see that there is a lot of support for her role at the university. ‘People are prepared to report incidents, so it is nice that there seems to be trust. At the same time I can see that this is a big and rather complex organisation. Change takes time and we may only see results in small steps. But it’s a special job at a special organisation, with nice, kind colleagues. That needs to be said too.’

She hopes that the reluctance among staff to contact an ombuds officer or confidential counsellor will dwindle. ‘I was recently asked: “How bad should things be before I can contact you?” Well, if you think like that, you should have come to me a long time ago! People sometimes say that it was unclear whom they could contact for what. My answer would be: call any one of us; it doesn’t matter who. The confidential counsellors and I have a lot of contact and we will gladly refer you to the right colleague. And feel free to invite us to events or themed lunches: we’re all too happy to provide information to you at your department.’

So she emphasises once again to all staff members, ‘You really can call me sooner and more often! Even if you are simply unsure whether a situation is odd or if you are wondering: Am I mistaken here? What should I do about it? Then we can do something at a much earlier stage. I’d prefer you approached me for something that may seem trivial at first sight than that you leave things to simmer.’

Text: Evelien Flink
Banner photo: Monique Shaw

Contact the ombuds officer

As staff ombuds officer, Marjan van Dasselaar gives independent advice to the University on how the staff’s work environment can be made safer. She can be reached by mail and phone (06-38950408). Anonymous reports cannot be dealt with. 

Social safety at Leiden University

Have you experienced or witnessed unacceptable or transgressive behaviour? The staff website gives information about what you can do yourself and which ‘helplines’ can assist you in this situation. 

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