University

‘We don’t want to listen to you’

Punished for speaking out?

Sujatha de Poel was thrilled when she was hired as a trainer in the Careers Company. But when she began to suspect that hiring and firing decisions were made based on favouritism, she spoke out. Now, she is out of a job.
Text and photo by Traci White

The RUG’s confidential advisor has seen a 28 per cent rise in students and employees contacting her to complain about undesirable conduct or unequal treatment. In her report, she wrote that the number of complaints labelled as ‘conflict with supervisor’ more than doubled.

Sujatha de Poel, a former RUG employee who reached out to the confidential advisor, personifies many issues identified in the report.

When De Poel began working as a trainer at Careers Company in the Faculty of Economics and Business, she felt she had found the perfect job.

After Careers Company officially became a department, she began worrying that favouritism was playing a role in certain hiring and firing decisions.

De Poel and a colleague wrote a confidential letter to the faculty board of FEB asking for a meeting to discuss their concerns about potential cronyism in the department. The board refused to address it unless they lifted the confidentiality.

The authors’ identities were revealed to the people whom the letter was about, and they were subjected to intimidation. De Poel believes the letter played a role in why she was not offered a permanent contract in the department.

An Arbitration Committee delivered their findings in the dispute to the RUG Board of Directors, who ultimately decided that De Poel’s claims were unfounded.

De Poel feels that her case will likely only discourage other employees from speaking out if they are concerned about misconduct in their department.

Reading time: 13 minutes (2,629 words)

It was an overcast Thursday morning, but president Sibrand Poppema was perfectly clear when he told the University Council that the latest report from the RUG’s confidential advisor had his full attention and would be addressed – urgently. Marijke Dam, the RUG’s contact person for victims of undesirable conduct or unequal treatment, indicated that 129 students or employees had contacted her in 2016. That is 28 more cases than last year. ‘The fraud case, which was identified in late 2015/early 2016 at the RUG, played a role in the rise in cases, but that is not the only explanation’, the report reads.

The number of complaints labelled as ‘conflict with supervisor’ more than doubled, many of which shared some common traits: bosses who treat their department as if it is their own private island and fail to explain their often abrupt decisions to their staff. ‘A negative message that is not communicated properly strikes at the heart of the most important basis of a good working relationship: trust’, the report reads.

In the problematic cases, firing an employee or reassigning them to a different position is rarely done according to procedure, and the employees in question often had no demonstrable history of poor performance in their annual evaluations. The supervisors’ conduct was rarely questioned in any meaningful way, and they are often permitted to continue with business as usual.

Concerns

One (now former) RUG employee who reached out to the confidential advisor personifies many issues identified in the report. Sujatha de Poel, who is originally from India, was working as a trainer in the Careers Company department for the past three years – up until this past April, when she was let go. After she and a colleague, concerned about favouritism in hiring and firing decisions in the department, contacted the faculty board, De Poel alleges that an unfairly critical performance evaluation was used as a tool to punish her for speaking out.

When De Poel saw the vacancy for the trainer position in Careers Services (which eventually became Careers Company) at the Faculty of Economics and Business in early 2014, she felt that it was tailor-made for her. After she got the job, she enjoyed working closely with students and got along well with most of her colleagues, she recalls. But when Careers Company officially became its own department in December of 2014, De Poel says things started changing.

Mixed signals

Her first misgivings arose after getting mixed signals from the faculty board and from other members of the faculty. De Poel was personally appointed by then-vice dean Janka Stoker to work on the project as a coach, but another FEB staffer was appointed project leader. The project leader, Ingrid*, tried to persuade De Poel to bring on two particular people whom she mentioned by name as external trainers for student supervision.

Despite Stoker’s clear instructions that De Poel was to be the only coach involved,
Ingrid allegedly told De Poel she did not have to listen to the vice dean. When De Poel declined, Ingrid eventually saw to it that the two trainers were hired to work on a subcommittee of the project after all. Although De Poel does not have concrete proof, she believes that committee was an excuse for Ingrid to give her friends work connected to the Careers Company. The two trainers in question were formally hired by Careers Company several weeks ago.

Cronyism

Another incident alarmed one of De Poel’s colleagues. She was in a hiring committee with Ingrid, who by then was also working in the Careers Company, and she felt that Ingrid was pressuring the committee into choosing a friend of hers for the job. Email correspondence between Ingrid and the other committee members reveal Ingrid’s efforts to persuade the committee to choose her friend, who already had a different position in the department.

Ingrid explicitly acknowledged that the candidate was a friend and insisted that it would not play a role in her decision-making, but her campaign to keep the vacancy strictly internal was decidedly beneficial for her friend, all the same.

Questionable

De Poel’s colleague repeatedly called for external candidates to also be recruited, and the vacancy was ultimately posted publicly. A non-Dutch external candidate wound up being hired instead of Ingrid’s friend. But De Poel says that the new international hire’s treatment in the department made it difficult for her to fulfil her duties and she ultimately resigned two months ago. The employee in question was not prepared to speak with the UK about the matter, but after she left, Ingrid’s friend got the newly available position after all – and has now been given a permanent contract in the department.

It won’t end well for you. Your career in Careers Company will be affected

After yet another questionable situation arose in early 2016, De Poel and her Dutch colleague (who sat on the hiring committee) decided to write a confidential letter to the faculty board of economics and business. In an email, Careers Company director Wijnand Aalderink announced that he would be on sabbatical for three months and that Ingrid would take over at least a part of his duties while he was gone. A week later, Ingrid informed the staff that she would maintain certain managerial duties, not only while Aalderink was away but also after he returned.

Confusion about who was ultimately in charge of the department and how Ingrid came to be in that position prompted De Poel and her colleague to submit the letter to the board. The letter, which the UK has been granted access to, is primarily focused on what Ingrid and Aalderink’s actual roles were within the department. The letter writers asked the board for a chance to discuss the situation with them in person.

Not getting involved

De Poel says that after they sent it, she and her colleague were subjected to ‘intimidation, harassment and managerial bullying’. According to De Poel, FEB’s management secretary Alie van Arragon discouraged them from pursuing the matter further. ‘She said it would be better for us to drop the letter, because “it won’t end well for you. Your career in Careers Company will be affected”.’ When they refused to withdraw the letter, Van Arragon allegedly told them they had to lift the confidentiality before their concerns would even be considered.

In the interest of having it handled, De Poel says they reluctantly agreed to lift the confidentiality of the letter. But shortly thereafter, they were informed by Van Arragon that the board would not address the letter after all and would not get involved with how Aalderink was leading the department, De Poel says. The UK contacted Van Arragon for comment, but she said that FEB’s dean, Herman de Jong, was the spokesperson on behalf of the faculty on the matter. De Jong was unwilling to discuss the matter due to its personal nature.

Out of a job

Despite their apparent unwillingness to handle the matter, De Poel says that the vice dean, Albert Boonstra, did meet with her and the other employee who co-signed the letter – not to address their concerns, but to question why they wrote it in the first place and to call for them to pledge their loyalty to the department leadership. Boonstra declined to be interviewed for this story, but he denies saying anything along those lines. ‘That is entirely made up’, he writes via email.

He spent the majority of the meeting grilling her about the letter

Soon thereafter, De Poel had her annual performance evaluation with Aalderink. When De Poel sat down in Aalderink’s office, she says that her manager, having learned that a confidential letter had been sent regarding him, set the evaluation forms aside and spent the majority of the meeting grilling her about the letter and why she thought that the board would listen to her complaints.

She says that she was so caught off guard and alarmed that when the meeting ended, she felt physically ill. Despite being praised in her previous year’s evaluation, she was ultimately given an unsatisfactory assessment, which meant that she would be out of a job when her contract ended in April of 2017.

‘Somewhat bold’

The UK was granted access to both of the evaluations: In 2015, Aalderink had nothing but good things to say about De Poel, commending her as a dedicated employee who is a valuable addition to the department. One remark that could be perceived as negative is a sentence about how De Poel’s communication style ‘can sometimes be perceived by some as somewhat bold’. The evaluation states that Aalderink and De Poel discussed the matter.

The 2016 evaluation form is a very different story. Aalderink’s view of De Poel seems dramatically more critical, listing various things that De Poel had done over the past year which he deemed problematic, ranging from failing to return a travel card in a timely manner to a disagreement with a colleague. Aalderink also refers to the existence of the confidential letter in De Poel’s written evaluation, describing it as ‘totally unacceptable’. De Poel firmly believes that Aalderink’s citing the letter in the evaluation proves its role in her eventual dismissal.

No comment

In an effort to place these actions into context, the UK contacted every current employee of Careers Company about their experiences in the department in general and to see if they could comment on De Poel’s situation in particular. But nearly everyone either declined or is on maternity leave.

Nienke van den Berg, a project leader at CC, wrote, ‘I have faith in the process. I’ve never had any issues here.’ Another project leader, Frederike Godron-Kemps, wrote via email, ‘I very much enjoy my work at FEB and for the Careers Company in particular: we do interesting projects, there are good people there, and we have a nice team and we collaborate well. As for this particular case, I do not feel any need to comment.’

Professional

Only two current employees were willing to talk at length about their own experiences: scientific director Jan Riezebos, and Myrthe*, who was only willing to be interviewed if we protected her identity.

Riezebos, an operations professor at FEB, worked with De Poel on various projects and describes her as a ‘professional, sociable and friendly’ woman. But he also says that he would simply chalk any talk of cronyism or cliques up to the natural tensions that develop within any working environment. ‘There are situations in every department where one person does not respond well to another person, and I think that is also the case here.’ When he has sat on department hiring committees, he says he never felt favouritism played a role.

Gatekeeper

Myrthe, on the other hand, recognises De Poel’s version of events. ‘There are definitely little clubs and favouritism in the department’, she says. She describes how Aalderink is often the only source of information for the faculty board, making him a gatekeeper to all of his employees. ‘If he portrays the conduct of an employee in a certain light to the board, that employee doesn’t get an opportunity to correct that impression.’

She wonders if Groningen’s relative isolation plays a role in higher levels of management seemingly looking the other way. ‘In the Randstad, if you are working for a boss you don’t like, then you can just leave and find another organisation to work for’, she says. ‘But that isn’t so easy here, and I think that makes it easier for managers to conduct themselves in a certain way and feel that they have the power to do so’, she says.

Side of the story

De Poel decided to appeal the assessment: In April, her case was heard by the RUG’s Arbitration Committee, an external panel of judges who assess disputes within the university. Via email, Careers Company director Wijnand Aalderink declined to discuss De Poel’s case, saying that he gave his side of the story during the hearing. ‘As a good employer, I cannot make any further comments with regard to individual employees’, he writes. ‘In general, I can say that I enjoy my work and I value good staff policy, both as an employer and in keeping with the rules and procedures of the RUG.’

She tears up multiple times while speaking about the decision

During the hearing, FEB managing director John de Groot and Aalderink cited communication issues in De Poel’s latest performance review as ‘red flags’. ‘We are also responsible for our other employees, and there were too many instances where things became problematic’, De Groot said at the time.

De Poel argues that the instances cited in her 2016 evaluation were not only blown out of proportion, but that some of them were included under false pretences. De Poel claims that Aalderink took a comment made about her by another FEB employee in casual conversation and used it in the evaluation, unbeknownst to that colleague and therefore without her permission.

Over his head

The employee in question was unwilling to speak to the UK directly, but the UK saw the evaluation where the employee’s name is mentioned, as well as a personal email from the employee to De Poel after learning that her remark was characterised as a complaint. In the email, the employee insists that she always enjoyed working with De Poel and valued her as a colleague, and that the alleged conflict had been quickly resolved.

In front of the Arbitration Committee, De Groot also suggested that De Poel and her co-signatory of the letter should have approached Aalderink first to discuss their concerns ‘from one employee to another’ rather than going over his head. De Poel says that she and her colleague felt they had no choice but to bypass their boss: in their experience, Aalderink responded poorly to any form of criticism.

De Poel and her colleague claim that at least five other Careers Company employees were either let go or effectively pushed out for their unwillingness to keep their heads down. The UK sought to contact the former Careers Company staffers, but only one employee was prepared to comment and only on the condition of anonymity because they still work for the RUG. That former employee says that, similar to De Poel, they were characterised as opinionated, and a performance evaluation was also used to build the department’s argument for letting them go.

Unfounded

As for De Poel, on 15 April 2017, her contract expired and she left the Careers Company – for good. The Arbitration Committee delivered their advice to the university’s Board of Directors earlier this month: her appeal was declared unfounded based on insufficient evidence of her claims.

Two weeks after hearing the decision, De Poel admits that the reality of it has yet to truly sink in: She tears up multiple times while speaking about the decision. Her experience over the past year has left her feeling like she has been made an example of – the way that she and her colleague have been exposed to intimidation and reputation damage for raising concerns seems likely to discourage other employees from speaking up, she says.

Following last year’s revelations of over two decades of fraud committed by the university’s maintenance department, RUG president Poppema called on university employees to contact senior management or the confidential advisor with concerns about misconduct within their department. De Poel says that at the end of the day, that is all that she and her fellow letter writer were trying to do.

Her experience over the past year has left her deeply distrustful. ‘The strongest message that has come out through the experiences that my colleague and I have had is, “we don’t want to listen to you”,’ De Poel says. ‘If you write a letter and express your concerns, you’re being told; we won’t have this meeting with you. It means they don’t want to listen to your voice.’

*These names are pseudonyms in order to protect the identities of the employees.

Nederlands

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