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‘A culture of dignity and respect takes constant work and attention’

As staff, we can help every day to create a culture of dignity and respect, says HR specialist Bregje Speet. ‘It boils down to the question of how to treat each other normally. And what we consider normal to be.’

HR specialist Bregje Speet

In her role at HR, Bregje Speet deals with the topic day in, day out but even when she doesn’t have her HR hat on, she still tries to do her bit to create a safe working environment. ‘For instance by showing vulnerability to colleagues. I try to ask for help if I don’t know or am unsure about something or if it’s just not my day. You need to trust in each other as a team: this lays the groundwork for if things ever go really wrong.’

Speet has been working as an HR policy and organisational culture specialist at the university for six months now. What has she noticed in that time? ‘That our dignity and respect system is very strong. We’ve got an ombuds officer, a network of confidential counsellors, a complaints regulation and a complaints committee. We have also, in part through the website and events, considered the role of managers and HR as the first point of contact. I think the trick in such a large organisation is to devote enough airtime to this – and to ensure that it is easy for staff to get in touch.’

Keep the topic alive

Another challenge, she says, is keeping the topic alive – but in a positive way. ‘In other words, how do we create a safe and sociable work environment?’ There are gains to be made on the prevention side. Dignity and respect is a work in progress. Every moment of every working day you have the opportunity to increase or reduce it. It is something that takes continuous work and attention and that we have to be alert to together: that means every staff member in Leiden and The Hague.’

‘Every moment of every working day you have the opportunity to increase or reduce dignity and respect’

Together with her HR colleagues and Young Academy Leiden (YAL), Speet is organising a series of dialogue sessions for staff to discuss what is needed to foster a culture of dignity and respect at the university. The first session has already been held and Speet is pleased with how it went. ‘People spoke openly about their experience, and that was the aim. We are now planning the next session, again in collaboration with YAL. Similar sessions have also been held for institute managers and scientific and academic directors. They took the initiative themselves. It’s great to see that these groups want to play a role in this.’ 

Speet can see how colleagues are uncertain about reporting incidents: what are the consequences for people’s careers if they speak out? What will happen with their story? Speet understands these concerns. ‘But I also want to emphasise that our system is designed to allow people to express themselves freely and ensure they stay in full control of what happens next. No action will be taken unless that is what you want. I would urge my colleagues to have faith in that.’

Good leadership

There are other forms of support at the university, such as special good leadership modules and specialised coaches who can help if there is friction within a team. And there are projects that at first glance may not seem to be about dignity and respect but do have an impact anyway. ‘Within the university-wide Academia in Motion programme we are looking for new forms of recognition and reward that go further than individual research achievements’, says Speet. ‘It needs to be more attractive to achieve things as a team – and collaboration is the backbone of dignity and respect.’

‘The role of bystander is crucial in a culture change’

One concrete, relatively easy step staff can take, says Speet, is to attend the workshop The Active Bystander. ‘Because the role of bystander is crucial in a culture change. Perhaps you have seen or heard something that doesn’t feel quite right. Before you know what to do or say, the moment has often passed. In this workshop, you learn how to respond.’

She also advises colleagues to take a look at the staff page on dignity and respect that was launched last year. ‘It states clearly whom you can contact for what. You will also find a short video in which Professor of Public Management Sandra Groeneveld gives a great explanation of what makes dignity and respect so important – and also why an organisation cannot achieve anything without it. The video’s only 11 minutes. I would recommend it to everyone.’

Dare to talk to each other

Speet has noted that dignity and respect is sometimes seen as a big, complicated concept. ‘But it boils down to the question of how to treat each other normally. And what we consider normal to be.’ There is no set definition of that, which makes it another thing we have to dare to talk about. Our researchers’ groundbreaking research is often based on curiosity. What I would wish for the organisation is that we could also view our colleagues through those eyes: “That’s really interesting how you’ve chosen to do that. What made you decide to do so?” Conversations like that also foster a culture of dignity and respect because people are not always aware of the impact of what they say or do. And if something happens that is not quite right, I would urge people to speak up. It doesn’t matter how, where and to whom you report it, as long as you discuss it, regardless of whether you were on the receiving end or were a bystander.

Dignity and respect at Leiden University

If you have experienced or witnessed inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour, you will find information about what you can do and which helplines you can call on the staff members page.

And if you find it hard to raise difficult topics with colleagues, the Let’s Connect toolkit has articles, videos, training and conversation tools to help you get the conversation going. You can also take advantage of what New Heroes has to offer. (link)

If there is a need for coaching within your team, for instance on team development, or because there is friction in certain areas, send an email to HR specialist Bregje Speet. She and her HR colleagues in the organisation will look at who the best mentor is for your issue.

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