Watching a close relationship break up in private is bad enough. To observe the decades-long partnership of Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond unravel in public may be sport for some but it's sad, even tragic, for those of us not obsessed by Scottish independence, for or against. If any good can come of it, then perhaps it should be the broader exposure of the rather shady world of flawed quasi-judicial disciplinary processes, or the abuse of these processes, by HR professionals and managers in organisations and institutions, public and private. There isn't a TU representative in the land who hasn't come across it at some point. Although most cases are not in relation to sexual misconduct, there is a common procedural flaw that requires closer examination.
In many institutions, a procedural error such as the one exposed by Salmond's judicial review is not regarded as an error at all (not the case, I should make clear, in the Salmond judgement). Prior to the formal stage of a disciplinary procedure, there is an 'informal' investigation of complaints made against an employee. Whether innocent or guilty of the allegations raised against them, the employee is rarely aware of what is transpiring 'confidentially' in their HR and line manager's offices. Heads of departments or line managers are the first investigators, but at this stage of the process, described as 'informal', it is relatively unscrutinised.
But the informal stage of the disciplinary process, as a result of its vagueness in relation to the 'formal' process, and especially if overseen by unscrupulous managers hell-bent on removing someone they dislike or whose performance is not up to scratch, is open to abuse. Often at the informal stage, the guilt of the employee is determined, and the complainant/s are encouraged to proceed.
In less common but particularly egregious cases, the 'formal' stage of the process is simply a rubber-stamping of what has already been decided, and the ensuing investigation, with a new 'neutral' investigator in place, is tasked with nailing it, as it were. This latter stage can take months, in some cases a year, particularly if the accused employee, say, is not guilty of all the allegations made against them; a line-manager wants them out; it's a particularly complex case; or the HR department is poorly managed. If all four, you've got a perfect storm.
Subjected to such a process, an employee usually goes off sick, overwhelmed by the stress of it. When eventually offered a 'bung 'n' boot' package, the employee – whether guilty or innocent – has had enough. Job done. Employment tribunals are of course an option, but TU reps and employment lawyers regard this route as tortuous for an employee already exhausted, and anyway, employers will usually settle prior to the tribunal to prevent adverse publicity.
So, the 'bung 'n' boot' packages, common in the private and public sector, is the standard solution. Why is there so little public awareness of these practices? Because the expensive 'bung' part of the package usually has a non-disclosure agreement attached, which is almost always in place to protect the employer from exposure, not the employee. Natural justice, it ain't.
Speaking of disciplinary proceedings getting out of hand, a real corker is underway in the US in which a philosopher, Paul Boghossian of Portland State University, is threatened with dismissal for what amounts to whistleblowing – as he and many of his academic colleagues would claim – on the academic standards of certain journals.
Ever since the famous Sokal hoax back in 1996 – a scholarly publishing sting where the physics professor at UCL submitted a paper full of nonsense, but which sounded good nonetheless, and was in keeping with the editor's ideological stance – this practice has continued sporadically. At times an admittedly naughty and funny experiment to test a journal's academic rigour, it has ceased to be a laughing matter in the Boghossian case. Academics are familiar with the fact that certain journals will publish papers in line with the house ideology, and often write to their brief to notch up desperately needed research scores.
In this current case, Boghossian and his collaborators submitted articles spattered with a goodly amount of nonsense to various journals devoted to 'grievance studies'. Half of them were published. But rather than the journal editors being shamed (as they were in the Sokal hoax), Boghossian's own university is taking action against him on ethical grounds. Their reasoning is that he was conducting research in the submission of these articles, and since the subjects of this research were the editorial boards of the journals, their informed consent should have been secured before the research was carried out.
Set aside Boghossian's counter-argument that he wasn't conducting research in the submitting of the article, but instead engaged in whistleblowing, seeking such consent would have undermined the very research he was alleged to have been carrying out. The important point in Boghossian's favour, however, is more obvious: one's attitudes cannot be legitimate if they are based on falsehoods. We all have grievances, and some are well-founded. But even academic grievance studies need intellectual rigour. Otherwise they descend into little more than polished rants in impenetrable academic language.
One of Boghossian's papers, published in a peer-reviewed journal, was a rewrite of chapter 12 of 'Mein Kampf' with 'feminist buzzwords switched in'. Mildly amusing I suppose, but not a sacking offence. My own view of this nonsense is summed up in that famous phrase: 'Academic politics are so vicious and bitter because the stakes are so low'.