Guest Post: Hannelore’s Story

In November last year I published an anonymous guest post entitled The Bullying of Hannelore by a Professor of Astronomy, recounting the bullying of a member of administrative staff (referred to pseudonymously as Hannelore) in an Astronomy Department in the UK. Among other features of the response to that post, it was remarkable how many people from different institutions contacted me to suggest that this post was about their institution, which strongly suggests that bullying of the sort described is endemic in UK universities.

This is Hannelore’s side of the story. As before, all the names have been changed and the institution is not identified. I think you should read it.

Hannelore’s Story

Hannelore has been employed by her University for over 10 years on fixed term contracts. She is also an alumna of the University.

She works with a large international astronomy collaboration, as their project manager. She supports the research of colleagues in her Department, as well as the coordination of the exams.

Four years ago, she made a mistake.

Hannelore became an active bystander to a colleague (in his absence), when she refuted allegations and insinuations the Head of Department was making about his financial mismanagement. She knew they were untrue.

Thereafter, her professional life changed.

Previously uncomplicated processes were tightened up, layers of control and approval were imposed, responsibilities removed. She was cut out of email communications, two successive applications for promotion were turned down, the locks to an office she could previously access were changed, timesheets were thrown on her office floor. Grant applications became an obstacle course, the Head of Department imposing sole approval rights and driving proposal submissions to the deadline until all of his conditions were met, with new rules and arbitrary policies emerging all the time.

Unbeknown to her, the Head of Department was also making insinuations about her work, her trustworthiness, her confidentiality and her behaviour. He was eroding her reputation, the professional relationships she had forged with others and slowly also her confidence.

Every time she reacted to the incidents, things only became worse.

A confidential report was commissioned into her behaviour. An HR professional concluded that her worries were real to her, “but imaginary”.

Within days, her Head of Department was busy leaking his ”substantial concerns” about her mental health which had been highlighted in the recent investigation, and which the Department did not have the means to address.

Seemingly exonerated, her Head of Department intensified the bullying. Within three weeks of the report, she received an end-of-contract letter. She had been put in the formal process of redundancy. This was while still supporting the Examiners in her department.

Hannelore was being dismissed from her job.

She had guaranteed funding from the European Community to support her for four years. But, it was a fixed term contract, so it still needed final approval from her Head of Department.

But, the Head of Department argued … well, anything really … so as not to sign. He said that there was no PI to support the project, that there was no space in the Department, that the project was scientifically valueless, that the grant should be transferred to another UK institution, that the Department had no “bandwidth to support a mentally unbalanced woman”.

It all became too much for her. She was very close to breaking down.

The Head of Department was also one of the Examiners.

Hannelore used the very little that was left of her resources to make sure the examinations were properly supported. In spite of prospective joblessness. In spite of belittling by the Head of Department/Examiner.

One of the other Examiners saw her distress and blew the whistle on the Head of Department’s aggressive behaviour. The redundancy process was momentarily paused.

Then, a document was written by two colleagues: a factual description for review by the academic staff of her grant’s approval process. To prevent exposure, the Head of Department gave in to matters being taken out of his hands. The funding was signed off the next day, though not by him.

Hannelore would have her job, after all.

But, the Head of Department was furious. He issued not one, not two, but three formal Grievances against each of the Professors who had helped her in her distress. He said he had not been doing any bullying — it was everyone else who had been bullying him. The three Professors all remain under investigation to this day.

Eighteen months later, Hannelore can see how the bullying has affected her.  

When bullying goes on for so long, people modify their behaviour and start to behave oddly. They lose more support. Everybody then thinks that person is odd. But it is because of the bullying.

She can see this happened to her in a mild fashion for two years, in a stronger fashion for one year and in an unacceptable fashion for the final two months, before the Head of Department was exposed.

And the University … well, they are not interested in Hannelore.

They are only concerned in avoiding a major public scandal.


3 Responses to “Guest Post: Hannelore’s Story”

  1. …. that the Department had no “bandwidth” to support a mentally unbalanced woman.

    Is this legal?

    It looks like a violation of the Equality Act.

    Certainly, my University has policies in place to prevent discrimination against those with mental health issues.

    (Whether the policies translate into practice is perhaps another matter).

  2. Sadly, wherever there is unaccountable or unchecked power, there is bound to be abuse.

  3. Wyn Evans Says:

    It is disappointing that, despite greater awareness of well-being and anti-bullying, UK Astronomy Departments still seem to be struggling to create a positive and supportive working environment for all staff & students.

    We collectively need to do a lot better.

    For me, the most interesting part of Hannelore’s story is when she describes the effects of bullying on her, in the last few paragraphs, how it changed her.

    A friend of mine was bullied horribly now some 7 years ago (yes, in an Astronomy department).

    She still finds it very hard to get over things like that in her past. She still goes over some of the bad situations that happened in her mind. It has left her anxious when dealing with interpersonal conflicts and distrustful of people.

    The damage done by being bullied is longstanding and permanent.

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