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Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Society conducts huge bullying survey

Thousands of employees took part in social study after high-profile bullying scandals emerged last year.

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Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology

Staff who work for the Max Planck Society’s research institutes responded to a survey that asked about working culture.Credit: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa/Alamy

Most of the scientists who work for one of the world’s richest and most prestigious basic research organizations, the Max Planck Society (MPS) in Germany, have pride and trust in their institutes — but cases of sexual discrimination and bullying occur regularly, and nearly half of foreign scientists working for the MPS don’t feel they fit in.

These are some of the findings of a huge survey of the society’s staff and its working culture, which received responses from more than 9,000 people, or 38% of MPS staff, at the society’s 86 research institutes. The society commissioned the survey after two high-profile bullying scandals last year involving research directors. The study’s draft conclusions were presented at the society’s annual meeting on 27 June in Hamburg.

“I wanted to get a picture of the general mood in the society so that we can base our responses to any problems on a more thorough understanding of how the society works, rather than on individual cases,” says MPS president Martin Stratmann. The survey was independently designed and conducted by sociologists at the Berlin-based Center for Responsible Research and Innovation, part of the Fraunhofer Society, which is Germany’s main applied-research organization.

Bullying and harassment

Overall, 76% of staff members said they were proud to work at their organization and 84% said they would go above and beyond to support their institute’s success.

But about 10% of respondents said they had experienced bullying in the past 12 months, and 17.5% said they had over a longer period — figures similar to those measured by surveys of academic institutions in countries including the United States, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom. The incidence of gender-based discrimination or sexual harassment — reported by nearly 4% of respondents in the last 12 months — was below levels found in other surveys of research organizations (see ‘Working culture’).

Source: Max Planck Society

That doesn’t excuse any single case, says Stratmann, who says he is committed to a zero-tolerance approach to both issues. The survey comes as the international academic community grapples with issues of bullying, which have come to the fore in the past year or so. However, many academic institutions have not had formal bullying policies or definitions of the behaviour. Stratmann says that the MPS is creating a code of conduct for bullying in response to the results, and is rolling out mandatory training.

The survey also found that more non-scientific than scientific staff said they felt that they had been bullied — 23% compared with 13%. Stratmann speculates that the difference might emerge because institutes tend to have a higher turnover of scientific staff than of technical and administrative staff, who mostly have permanent working contracts. “Maybe bullying needs to have time to emerge in working relations,” he says.

Fourteen per cent of women said they had experienced sexual harassment in a period longer than the past 12 months. But unexpected, says Stratmann, was that women in leadership positions reported experiencing sexist behaviour at a higher rate than others — 26% of directors and group leaders, compared with 23% of postdocs and 25% of PhD students.

Stronger policies

“The Max Planck survey shows an apparently lower level of bullying than other academic surveys — but what really matters is that they say that the level they observe is unacceptable, and plan to do something about it,” says Loraleigh Keashly, an occupational psychologist at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, who specializes in workplace bullying, particularly in academia. Keashly praised the study design and response rate — “a data set of 9,000 is a researcher’s dream”.

The survey was also highly representative, with subgroups, such as gender, age and job categories, responding in appropriate proportions — important for a survey’s validity, says Martina Schraudner, a biologist turned social scientist who led the study. “To my knowledge this is the first survey of a large research organization,” she adds.

The Max Planck’s international make-up was another focus of the survey — 36% of research directors are from outside Germany as are 75% of postdocs. But 45% of the non-Germans working at the institutes felt excluded. “We have to be really worried about this,” says Stratmann. He speculates that one of the reasons could be language barriers.

Different people — for example those from different cultures — may not consider the same types of behaviour as bullying. So the survey asked respondents whether they had experienced particular behaviours that are indicated in the social-science literature as bullying, such as having opinions ignored or being unfairly blamed, publicly humiliated or shouted at. Around 60% reported having experienced one or more such behaviours.

The MPS says it will continue to analyse the survey data for more insights, for example to pin down the subgroups most affected by particular problems. The code of conduct for bullying that the society is developing will list behaviours that the leadership and its multicultural staff agree are unacceptable, akin to its code of conduct for sexual discrimination, says Stratmann.

Nature 571, 14-15 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02052-2

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