Faculty is working on a guideline for personal relationships

Science Dean wants clarity about private relationships in the workplace

Foto: Pexels
Photo: Pexels

By introducing a new guideline on personal relationships, the faculty hopes to prevent conflicts of interest or other integrity problems, as can be read in the draft note discussed in the faculty council earlier this month. According to the board, being transparent about relationships should also prevent suspicion or envy from arising within a team or department. 

The guidelines are still under development and being discussed in various places. The aim is to adopt a final version before the summer. According to the faculty board, such a guideline should be considered in the context of increased attention to social safety. There have been many courses and discussions on this topic at the faculty recently, generating a need to make certain implicit forms of interaction explicit.

The meeting evidenced that more brainstorming needs to be done to reach a final text. The faculty board explained that these were "guidelines", not a "regulation". This means employees cannot be fired if they do not adhere to the agreements. That comment led to questions from council members. After all, the memo referred to a "duty to report". They wondered how an obligation could be included in a directive. Shouldn't that be formulated differently? The faculty board agreed with this observation and said the document would be adjusted. 

The new policy should ensure that employees inform their manager when engaging in a love or family relationship with a colleague or student, according to the draft proposal. The manager will then have to talk to those involved to determine if there is a risk that private and work interests will become intertwined – or if others may perceive it that way.

The faculty board proposes to ensure that partners cannot work in managerial roles within the same department or be on the same team. An exception for PhDs was made for the latter case. Teachers will also have to be transparent about relationships with students, especially if they are responsible for assessing the student's performance.

An earlier version of the memo stated that the new rules should also apply to teaching assistants (these are students with teaching duties, Ed.). To the relief of the students in the council, that proposal has been scrapped. A faculty council member had already envisioned painful scenarios in which students who teach tutorials have to confess to a deeply Christian teacher about a one-night stand with a fellow student.

In the meeting, Dean Isabel Arends said that she was surprised that the university didn't have anything written down about the undesirability of private relationships between close colleagues and between teachers and students. UU's Code of Conduct only states what is expected of students and employees along general lines. The Faculty of Science is the first one looking to establish concrete agreements regarding relationships. Arends indicated that she was met with resistance when discussing the guidelines with others. “To be honest, I didn't expect that.”

In an explanation to DUB, Arends says in an e-mail that many managers must get used to the fact that personal relationships hinder the appointment of someone with the desired substantive competencies. “They are used to making choices based on content.” In addition, according to her, partners have been hired for scientific positions on several occasions in the past. This was always seen as a plus because it allowed the university to profile itself as a good employer. Today, however, the faculty is more careful. If two partners get appointed by Utrecht University, they are placed in different teams. “We are just trying to put the current policy on paper.”

The dean notes that a lot of attention is being paid to transparency and the prevention of conflicts of interest, following “the spirit of the times”. She says that she would like to see the guidelines of her faculty inspire a University-wide policy. However, it is unlikely that UU would introduce such a guideline for all employees in the short term.

"Dereliction of duty"
In 2021, the Executive Board stated that such a guideline would be useful, but now it says it would prefer employees debate the question with each other to see which behaviours are desirable and which are not. 

Three years ago, while discussing sexual harassment and other types of misconduct, members of the University Council and a task force set up by students strongly pushed for a code to orient relationships in the workplace. They often referred to Radboud University, in Nijmegen, which sets clear requirements for its employees. Failure to comply is considered "dereliction of duty" there.

After some hesitation, the Executive Board said that drawing up a code was a good idea. But, first, the board wanted to consult the university community about what should be included in such a code. Banning all relationships right off the bat, as some council members suggested, was a step too far for the university administrators. 

However, in the latest Social Safety Action Plan, which was adopted last year, the proposal to draw up a code of conduct for private relationships in the workplace was not included at all. Instead, “a provision should be added to the Code of Conduct that makes explicit when there is a conflict between the private and working relationships of those involved.” A spokesperson for UU explains: “The Code of Conduct already talks a lot about manners, so it is logical to add a provision.”

According to the same spokesperson, dialogues will take place after the summer break about how employees wish to interact with each other at the university. The risks of mixing private and work relationships will also be discussed. A provision might be added to the Code of Conduct as a result of these discussions, but, according to her, that is not the aim of the meetings.

“The conversations will be used to examine the existing Code of Conduct, but we do not think the awareness and change we desire can be achieved by writing a code alone. Therefore, our Social Safety Action Plan focuses on discussions to arrive at mutual standards that contribute to a safe work and study environment.”