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Managerial discrection and disciplinary action: a case of disciplinary action

COBAS UK | 11.09.2008 22:30 | Culture | Education | Social Struggles | Birmingham | World

A case of disciplinary action against a university academic

With the prevailing focus in British Industrial Relations on economism and avoidance of conflict, academic employees are collectively failing to oppose the encroachment of capitalist managerial controls over the social relations of production and represent their antagonistic interests in the struggle for control over their own labour. In a technically-rationalised and marketised system of HE, workers and students both become commodities to be traded and exploited by employers on both sides of the graduation line.

The manifestation of university and particularly academic worker interests, is presently oppressed by academic managers who are encouraged to exercise discretion in the name of their employers and therefore in conflict with the interests of academic employees, serving only to alienate them. As in the case of disciplinary processes, such discretion is a mechanism aimed at internalising control and authority over the worker condition and the discourse of power, while reinforcing the ‘right to manage’.

In doing so, managers determine a postmodern perversion of ‘natural’ justice as being at the disposal of and beneficial to, the smooth and unquestionable operation of the capitalist university

** A case of disciplinary action against a university academic **

The employer is Wolverhampton University a post-’92 university in the West Midlands; the employee, a Male ethnic minority Senior Lecturer in Computing in his early 40s. The employment relation was governed by the standard terms and conditions for academic staff


The procedures of the staff handbook which form part of the employment contract, set out specific steps for disciplinary and grievance investigations, with separate procedures for bullying/harassment cases as well as for employee stress illness absences and other formal procedures.

The University is divided into various academic and ‘service’ departments. The case concerns events within a Computing School where the employee worked.

The School operates an hierarchical structure in which subject ‘divisions’ segment academic staff into teams, headed by a division leader, who reports to three Associate Deans, who in turn report to a Dean (a professor without a doctorate). The overall responsible manager for the employer is the Vice Chancellor, who is assisted and represented by a collective of Pro- and Deputy Vice-Chancellors.

At the time of the disciplinary action, the employee had been working for the university for approximately sixteen months, during which time the employment relationship had been punctuated by a catalogue of problems, including:

- An incident of public racial harassment by the Dean of School towards the employee within days of commencing employment, subjected to neither investigation nor action by the employer,

- The employee brought complaints about bullying in the department including against his line manager and another senior manager. The Dean described the events reported to him as “unprofessional conduct”, yet did not investigate any of them under the grievance or bullying procedures, despite a contractual obligation to do so. The employee also complained about health and safety breaches and breaches in the employment terms,

- A formal grievance against the employee’s mentor signalled failures by the School management in a breakdown of relations with the employee whilst he was a probationer, although no remedy was offered to the employee,

- The employee raised concerns about lack of opportunity to participate in curriculum development, as a fundamental aspect of his contractual duties and obstruction of his research activities and lack of equal funding for staff development and conferences, with complaints directed towards senior School management,

- The employee was a union representative but resigned due to ill health and because of conflict with the union after another representative had encouraged him to withdraw a grievance upon instruction from the Dean, as well as various other issues,

Out of this context, misconduct in the management of the employee’s probation by managers, led the Personnel Department to acknowledge a breach of contract by the employer. At the conclusion of the employee’s probation, the Dean cited the employee’s attempts to raise grievances about bullying as evidence of his problem of co‑working and sought to exert discipline in the form of extending his probationary period. This was disallowed when the Dean’s failure to conduct the probation process according to the contract emerged and the successful completion of the probation was acknowledged by the Personnel Services department. This marks the first attempt at disciplinary measures towards the employee.

Subsequently, a formal grievance about the employee’s line manager, citing a specific incident of bullying and misconduct was left ignored by the employer. While the line manager admitted an “error of judgment”, the lack of resolution of the grievance by senior managers responsible, left conflictual relations between employee and line manager/senior management ongoing.

The employee developed stress-related ill health as a result of his working conditions. Consequently, senior departmental managers and a University Personnel Manager consulted the internal Occupational Health Advisor about the employee and were advised that he should be enabled to avoid contact with the line manager until his grievance was resolved. At the discretion of the Dean, this advice was ignored and the employee returned to work without any adjustments in place and still suffering chronic stress.

Continuing tensions led to an argument between the employee and his line manager when it emerged that the line manager had instructed a colleague to remove the employee’s subject matter from an exam paper because the employee had ‘gone off sick’. Again feeling undermined and bullied by the line manager and other senior managers’ failures to reprimand the line manager for repeated procedural breaches, the employee, under stress, confronted the line manager with raised voice.

Although the incident did not involve any offensive language, abuse, physical violence or threats of any kind, the Dean of School immediately suspended the employee citing ‘gross misconduct’. The Dean and Personnel Manager worked collaboratively to construct the employer’s ‘case’ against the employee and bring a second disciplinary action against the employee.
It was at the Dean’s discretion, with advice from the Personnel Services department, that an argument for dismissal was made. The Dean was responsible for both investigating the case and arguing for the employee’s dismissal.

A disciplinary hearing was subsequently scheduled, whilst the employee remained ill with stress. Prior to the hearing, the employee notified the Vice Chancellor in writing that he felt that he had been subjected to bullying and harassment and that the disciplinary action was not being conducted fairly by the Dean. The VC declined to investigate or meet with the employee.

At the hearing;

- The employer refused to allow witness evidence to be given on behalf of the employee by a third party because this person was not an employee of the university;

- The employee presented his case unrepresented (by union or other colleague);

- The case for the employer was argued by the Dean who had also been responsible for the investigation, while the Dean’s own line manager chaired the process.

- The employee’s ill health at the time of the argument was not contemplated within the proceedings

The Chair found that the ‘gross misconduct’ allegation was not upheld but substituted a 12‑month warning against the employee, which meant further disciplinary action would be taken if similar incidents occurred.

An appeal hearing following a similar path, although chaired by a different senior manger (officially representing the VC). However, this time, the Chair stated that all of the employee’s outstanding grievances should be progressed and a ‘brokered attempt at resolution’ be made.

The employee was accompanied at the appeal hearing by a Union representative whose intervention was minimal and who demonstrated very amicable and entirely non-contentious relations with the senior managers present.

Between the two hearings, the employee returned to work. He received no support for his ongoing ill health and was placed under the regular supervision of an Associate Dean (not part of the disciplinary sanction and not reflected by any contractual change in line‑management arrangements).

The Dean, shortly afterwards, sought to insist that the employee make a public apology for the argument with his line manager. However the employee refused.
After the disciplinary action, the employee received no assistance for his worsening ill health. None of his outstanding grievances were investigated and the promised ‘brokered resolution’ was never implemented.

After several months and no resolution, the employee complained about the ongoing problems of bullying and obstruction of duties and further demanded an investigation into the causes of his stress at work in accordance with the University’s stress procedure. This placed an obligation upon senior managers to investigate.


- The complaints of bullying and harassment were never examined within the scope of the relevant procedures.

- A ‘stress investigation’ was aborted favouring the employer on the basis of the perverse logic that, as there was no evidence available to consider any causes of stress, then any stress must be caused by external conditions or originate from the employee. This conclusion was reached after the internal investigator chose unexplainably to isolate his consideration to one recent incident concerning bullying by a colleague who was also the union representative sent by the Dean to encourage the employee to withdraw an earlier grievance. It transpired that this same colleague refused to give evidence after claiming to have been contacted by the Dean.

- Following the several unresolved complaints and lack of attention to the conclusions of his former grievance and in the light of ongoing ill health, the grievance procedure was not pursued by the employee. The employee had further been advised by a union representative that “grievances don’t succeed in this university”. He made an explicit request to management that processes of resolution of his complaints be focused upon non-punitive objectives, although this request was not honored.

Subsequently, the joint efforts of personnel and management shifted towards how to legitimize the dismissal of the employee;

“…it would be more use to us if he did invoke a grievance... If we get in a position where a member of staff has invoked the bullying and harassment procedure, the stress procedure and the grievance procedure and all are unfounded, then I think we can do something about that, particularly since he is under a second stage warning to promote positive relationships with his colleagues.” (Personnel Services Manager, June 2006).

After this, the Dean actually took the extraordinary step of invoking a grievance against himself, on behalf of the employee, though notably against his wishes.

Within a few months, the employment relationship ended via the enactment of a third disciplinary procedure instigated by the Dean against the employee who was off work due to ill health at the time and never recovered sufficiently to present his case at a hearing.

While the details of this third and final disciplinary action are without the scope of this discussion, it is relevant to note that the allegations against the employee again centred on interpersonal relations arising from the employee’s complaints of bullying and criticisms towards management and University policy. They specifically concerned criticisms about misconduct, breaches of procedures and bullying from the Dean and the employer asserted that such criticisms were ‘unacceptable’. Despite this, the Dean was nonetheless accorded full discretion and authority in the gathering of evidence, investigation and construction of the case in favour of dismissing the employee.


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