After Grimm’s death, Imperial announced that it would investigate itself The report is now available.
Performance Management: Review of policies, procedures and support available to staff
Following the tragic death of a member of the College’s staff community, Professor Stefan Grimm, the Provost invited the Senior Consul, Professor Richard Thompson, and the Director of Human Resources, Mrs Louise Lindsay, to consider the relevant College policies, procedures and the support available to all staff during performance review.
The report is even worse than I expected. It can be paraphrased as saying ‘our bullying was not done sufficiently formally -we need more forms and box-ticking’.
At the heart of the problem is Imperial’s Personal Review and Development Plan (PRDP). Here is an extract.
"Professor Grimm had been under review in the informal process for nearly two years. His line manager was using this period to help Professor Grimm obtain funding or alternative work (the review panel saw evidence of the efforts made in this regard). The subsequent formal process would have involved a minimum of two formal meetings with time to improve in-between formal meetings before consideration would have been given to the termination of Professor Grimm’s employment. Understandably there is a reluctance to move into formal hearings, particularly when the member of staff is hard working and diligent, but the formal stages would have provided more clarity to Professor Grimm on process and support through the written documentation, representation at meetings and HR involvement."
"It is recommended that the new capability procedure and ordinance include greater clarity on timescales for informal action and how this might operate in different roles."
It seems to be absurd to describe Wilkins’ letter has an attempt to "help" Professor Grimm, It was a direct threat to the livelihood of a competent 51 year-old full professor. Having flow charts for the bullying would not have helped. Neither would the provision by HR of "resilience" courses (what I’ve seen of such classes makes me feel suicidal at the thought of how far universities have sunk into pseudo-scientific HR babble).
I’ll skip straight to the conclusions, with my comments on them in italic.
1. Expand the Harassment Support Contact Programme to train volunteers, academic staff, who can be matched with individuals going through informal processes.
Looks like a charade to me. If they want to fire people without enough grants, they’ll do it.
2. Refresh and re-launch information on the employee assistance services widespread distribution and regular update of promotional material.
3. Ensure regular training is given to new and experienced managers in core HR procedures.
Train senior people to bully properly.
4. Create a separate guidance and support document for staff to supplement document. The document to include a clear and concise summary of the informal formal process, a flowchart, the support available to staff and frequently asked questions
Pretend that staff are being helped by threatening to fire them.
5. Direct managers to inform HR before commencing the informal stage of performance management. All managers to have a briefing from their local HR representative of the instigation of performance management.
Make sure you’ve filled in the forms and ticked the boxes before you start bullying. HR don’t understand performance and should have no role in the process.
6. Create a separate policy for performance management in the form of procedure, which includes clear definitions for informal and formal performance
management and further guidance on the timescales and correspondence in stages. Provide clarity on the role of the PRDP appraisal in performance management.
The role PRDP is to increase the status of Imperial College, but pretend it’s to benefit its victims.
7. Create template documentation for performance management correspondence and formal stages of the process. Direct managers to ensure all correspondence reviewed by an HR representative before it is sent to a member of staff.
Bullying is OK if you’ve filled in enough forms.
In summary, these proposals merely add more bureaucracy. They won’t change anything. As one supposed, they are merely a smokescreen for carrying on as at present.
There is only one glimmer of hope in the whole report.
Although this was not within the remit of the current review, a number of concerns were raised with the reviewers about the application and consistency of approach in the use of performance metrics in academia and in the College. The reviewers recommend that the College undertake a wider consultation and review of the application of performance metrics within Imperial College with recommendations to be considered by the Provost’s Board in the summer term.
What should be done about performance?
I’ve been very critical of the metrics that are used by Imperial (and some other places) to harass even quite senior people. So, it might well be asked how I think that standards should be maintained. If people are paid by the taxpayers, it isn’t unreasonable to expect them to work to the best of their abilities. The following observations come to mind.
- Take a lesson from Bell Labs in its heyday (before performance managers got power) . "First, management had to be technically competent; at Bell Labs, all managers were former researchers. Second, no researchers should have to raise funds. They should be free of that pressure. Third, research should and would be supported for years – if you want your company to last, take the long view. And finally, a project could be terminated without damning the researcher. There should be no fear of failure."
- Take a lesson from the great Max Perutz about how to run a successful lab."Max had the knack of picking extraordinary talent. But he also had the vision of creating a working environment where talented people were left alone to pursue their ideas. This philosophy lives on in the LMB and has been adopted by other research institutes as well. Max insisted that young scientists should be given full responsibility and credit for their work. There was to be no hierarchy, and everybody from the kitchen ladies to the director were on first-name terms. The groups were and still are small, and senior scientists work at the bench."
- Read Gus John "The results of the Guardian higher education network’s survey on bullying in higher education should give the entire sector cause to worry about the competence and style of leaders and managers in the sector"
- The vast majority of scientists whom I know work absurdly long hours. They are doing their best without any harassment from "performance managers". Some are more successful, and/or lucky, than others. That’s how it is. Get used to it.
- Rankings of universities are arbitrary and silly, but worse, they provide an incentive to vice-chancellors to justify their vast salaries by pushing their institution up the rankings by fair means or foul. It’s no exaggeration to suspect that things like the Times Higher Education rankings and the REF contributed to the death of Stefan Grimm.
- Realise that HR know nothing about science: their "performance management" kills original science, and it leads to corruption. It must bear some of the blame for the crisis in the reproducibility of published work.
- If you want innovation, you have to tolerate lots and lots of failure
Stop press On April 7th, the coroner said the Grimm had asphyxiated himself on 25 September, 2014. He described the death as "needless"/ And Imperial’s HR director, Louise Lindsay, when asked if the new procedures would have saved his life, said "not clear it would have resulted in a different outcome.". So we have it from the horse’s mouth. Imperial has done nothing to prevent more tragedies happening.
10 April 2015
King’s College London has just issued a draft for its "performance management" system. You can read all about it here.
"Performance management is a direct incentive to do shoddy short-cut science."
17 April 2015
Alice Gast declines to apologise
At 06.22 on Radio 4’s Today Programme, Tanya Beckett interviewed Alice Gast. President of Imperial College London. After a 4-minute commercial for Imperial, Gast is asked about the death of Stefan Grimm. Her reply doesn’t even mention Grimm. “professors are under a lot of pressure . . .”. Not a word of apology or explanation is offered. I find it hard to comprehend such a heartless approach to her employees.
1 May 2015
The Imperial students’ newspaper, Felix Online, carried a description of the internal report and the inquest: Review in response to Grimm’s death completed. Results criticised by external academics: “Imperial doesn’t get it.”, It’s pretty good..
I wonder what undergraduates feel about being taught by people who write letters like Martin Wilkins‘ did?