How we want to work with organisations to handle bullying and harassment investigations

We’ve updated our bullying and harassment policy to set out how we expect the organisations we fund to handle cases of misconduct. Anne Taylor explains what’s changed.

Illustration of a magnifying glass over a person speaking to another person

Credit: Wellcome

Anne Taylor: "If no one knows there is a problem, the situation will not change."

When we published our bullying and harassment policy last year, it was the first of its kind in the UK and we needed to see how it worked in practice. Since then, Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation have also published their own policies. 

Designing and writing a policy is different to actually using and applying it. A policy is never interpreted by everyone in the same way, and there were a few sentences in the original version that you told us weren’t clear enough.

We’ve listened to feedback from the organisations we fund to make the policy clearer and to align it as much as we can with other funders. We’ve also made changes to help us better respond to cases and act faster to support anyone affected. 

Greater support for researchers and organisations

The most important change is that we now require organisations to tell us when a bullying and harassment investigation has been launched. This is in line with our research misconduct policy. Wherever possible, we also expect organisations to complete investigations if they have started them, even if the subject of the investigation leaves.

It’s important that organisations have visible policies and reporting mechanisms, so that complaints can be handled directly. People should feel able to take a complaint forward through their organisation, and also be supported if a complaint is brought against them. If no one knows there is a problem, the situation will not change.

There has been a lot of media and political interest recently in non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). While NDAs are not illegal, we now discourage ones that stop organisations sharing the findings of investigations with us. This is so we can take the right action. 

We try to help organisations make sure that those working on the affected grant are impacted as little as possible. This has always been a priority for us, but the wording in the updated policy now reflects this better. 

The policy requires organisations to tell us if applicants have any upheld allegations of bullying or harassment with active sanctions or disciplinary warnings. 

We know that information needs to be treated sensitively, and that not all research office staff who have to tick the box about upheld allegations will know about them. Organisations have different governance structures so it’s hard to give advice, but we recommend that the organisational sign-off process includes a check by someone who handles these investigations.

A commitment to change

Our bullying and harassment policy only launched last year and these things take time to bed in. What we really want to see is change and a real commitment to help that happen. We’re realistic that change needs persuasion in some areas and new processes in many others. 

Over the coming months, we’ll contact the organisations we fund to see what hurdles remain and how we can start changing tack on bullying and harassment.

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