Business & economics Editors Picks Home Categories

Labour rights reporting: Is a new era in sight?

MDX academic explains how British firms will have to comply with new EU corporate laws covering a range of social and environmental issues

Greenwashing is the exaggeration of a company’s impact on the environment and society. Unlike financial information, companies are not required to comply with reporting standards concerning environmental, social and governance (ESG) information.

It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that companies report their behaviour favourably without divulging the challenges or adverse impacts of their operations. This has cast a shadow over the credibility of ESG reports and their contributions to corporate accountability.

Furthermore, our research shows that companies struggle to report accurate information about workers along their value chains. Many companies agree with the general principles of labour rights, but they often fail to provide specific information supported by statistics, any steps they take to uphold labour rights, or their interactions with key stakeholders. Instead, they tend to provide general narratives which exaggerate their efforts.

The UK Modern Slavery Act (2015) has not improved the situation much. It is a relatively soft law and carries no penalties. There is very little political appetite in Britain to take on board recommendations to improve labour rights reporting.

All this may have to change in the face of new developments in the EU. The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) is a new Directive marking the beginning of a new era for reporting on a broad range of social and environmental issues, including labour rights. Given that Britain is the third largest trading partner in the EU, many British companies will have to comply.

The CSRD will mandate companies to report ESG information to the new European Sustainability Reporting Standards (ESRS). There will be penalties for non-compliance. ESRS will require companies to report on their endeavours to uphold labour rights of their employees and the workers along their value chains. ESRS requirements are closely aligned with those of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards. However, ESRS will evolve over the coming years and it’s yet to be seen if they will surpass the GRI standards in quality and adoption.

The CSRD will be implemented gradually from 2024 to 2029, starting with large EU companies, followed by listed small- and medium-sized enterprises and at the end, major non-EU companies.

While the accounting profession is gearing towards the upcoming changes, companies and local authorities need further support and guidance on how to uphold labour rights at the bottom end of value chains in the UK. It remains to be seen how far down the value chains companies can go to report accurate information and provide assurance on the absence of modern slavery.

Dr Sepideh Parsa is Associate Professor of accounting at Middlesex University Business School. Sepideh has been appointed by the Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB), GRI’s independent standard setting body, to serve on the GRI Labor Project Advisory Group to revise and develop the Labor related GRI topic standards.

Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

Business & economics Editors Picks

How seriously are companies taking their reporting under the Modern Slavery Act?

New research by MDX academics suggests companies focus on the risk to their reputation instead of labour rights when following laws on Modern Slavery

As a lesser known element of the agenda to deal with ‘modern slavery’ (commonly seen as a problem of people trafficked into the UK to work under ‘unfree’ conditions) has been a reciprocal concern over the abuse of workers in overseas operations of companies in the supply chains of UK companies. To this end, the Modern Slavery Act 2015: section 54 (MSA) was introduced to entice companies to ‘get to know’ their supply chains more. Specifically it requires companies to report on what actions they are taking to uphold supply chain labour rights in an ‘Annual Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement’ (ASHTS).

However, new evidence from a study by a Middlesex University research team led Dr Sepideh Parsa and Dr Chandima Hettiarachchi together with Dr Ian Roper from Essex University, suggests that this ‘soft law’ approach may be granting companies with too much flexibility, leading to inconsistencies in reporting where many challenges and complexities related to labour rights never get reported.  

While concerns have been voiced before over the credibility of information reported on ASHTS, little has been known on how companies select and focus on their reporting options. So researchers carried out a detailed examination of the largest 100 companies’ statements to shed light on some of the nuances in their reporting.

The research team developed a comprehensive index. Under the MSA, companies have the option to report on a number of categories. Based on these together with the recommendations by the CORE (2017), the team concentrated on five main categories: Organisation and Structure of supply chains (OS), Due Diligence (DD), Risk Assessment (RA), Codes of Conduct, Policies and Strategies (CPS) and Training and Collaboration (TC).

Each category included sub-categories that were informed by the recommendations of the CORE (2017) and in consultation with The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

The findings revealed that just over half of the companies prioritised reporting on their Risk Assessment and Due Diligence processes, followed by Codes of Conduct, Policies and Strategies and then Organisation and Structure of their supply chains being reported by similar number of companies. Upon closer examination of the two latter categories, reporting on CPS were closely linked with reporting on RA and DD processes (Figure 1). The hierarchy of priorities reported suggests, maybe unsurprisingly, an emphasis on those issues which are of more concern to investors, with an emphasis on risk to reputation, rather than to other institutional stakeholders – for example those concerned directly with labour rights. These three aspects (RA/DD/CPS) were at the epicentre of reporting, forming a strong, mutually supporting triangular relationship (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Correlations between different reporting categories

Notes: Figures in brackets show the percentage of companies reporting on each category.

Falling outside the reporting focus, Organisation and Structure of Supply Chains was linked, but to a much lesser extent, to RA and CPS. For example, only 60% of companies that raised their reporting on their RA or on their CPS also provided more information on the Organisation and Structure of their Supply Chains (OS). Details on how companies organised and structured their supply chains, especially in geographical locations that were identified as being at ‘high risk’ to violations of human rights combined with the challenges companies can face in certain areas were unreported. These were often in areas that fell outside their national jurisdiction. Similarly, just more than half of companies (57%) that increased reporting on the organisation and structure of their supply chains enhanced their information provisions on their due diligence processes. This conveys further hesitation by companies to disclose details about those part of their supply chains that were more at risk and hence had due diligence processes specifically devised for them.   

Maintaining a low profile on their supply chains is an illustration of companies’ reluctance to draw attention to challenges and problematic areas that may be hard to resolve within a business context or simply too complex and politically too sensitive to report on. In the UK regulatory environment for corporate governance where shareholders’ interests are prioritised, releasing information that may lead to uncertainties could adversely affect share prices, so there is an incentive for companies to avoid drawing attention to problematic areas. While this can be acceptable in the absence of any mandates for reporting on complex and sensitive issues, the same justification somehow falls short of explaining why companies made limited efforts to report on their Training and Collaboration programmes, where solutions could potentially be proposed to address problems identified.  

Training and Collaborations was the least reported category. Companies remained largely silent about their collaborations with external organisations, such as trade unions or labour NGOs. All this raises questions over how in-depth corporate efforts have been in finding out and understanding and dealing with challenges they face on this labour-rights issue, or how willing they have been in reporting on such efforts. It is unclear how much effort has been put into raising and changing corporate awareness and culture on labour rights issues and whether or not all the relevant issues have been identified and responded to. This can ultimately have implications for how risks are managed and due diligence processes are devised.

While it is convenient to prescribe the need for companies to engage with external ‘social partners’ who can inform their processes, we need to learn a lot more about sensitive labour issues along companies’ supply chains, especially those aspects that were often in geographical areas outside companies’ national jurisdictions with circumstances that are outside their expertise and their business remits. While Sepideh and her team remain critical of ‘soft law’ approaches, unless we know more about supply-chain challenges and complexities, any attempt to take a harder regulatory approach would be meaningless. 

The whole report is available online.  For any queries, please contact:

About the authors

Dr Sepideh Parsa is Associate Professor of accounting in the Accounting and Finance Department at Middlesex University Business School.
Dr Chandima Hettiarachchi is Researcher and Associate Lecturer in Accounting & Finance Department at Middlesex University Business School.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Business & economics

MBA students need to be taught ‘information resilience’.

Following the case of ANZ, Tim Evans, Professor of Business and Political Economy, highlights the importance of ‘information resilience’ for MBA students

While business schools the world over teach marketing, communications and stakeholder engagement, few, if any, seem to recognise the burgeoning significance of information warfare and therefore the importance of information resilience across our economies. 

Sean McFate’s recent book Goliath provides a powerful wake-up call. It makes the case that in a new and looming age of information conflict, few leaders in business, civil society or government currently have the training, skills or knowledge to deal with the rising tide of information threats. Disturbingly, McFate even goes so far as to suggest that our militaries are behind the curve and struggling to catch up. 

Three male students sitting around a mac computer with business and economics information appears on the screen

The ANZ attack and example

As tensions between the US and China mount, ANZ, one of Australia’s major banking groups, got into trouble recently when they reputedly became subject to a co-ordinated information assault aimed at one of their employees. Lacking the requisite skills and understanding, instead of backing the seemingly innocent co-worker, the bank apparently took the side of the aggressor.

No doubt unaware of what was going on, ANZ’s leadership appeared to crumble between the shafts of their own professed tolerance and the adversarial objectives of an increasingly authoritarian regime eager to impose their will on innocent bystanders. By silencing one employee, the assailants appeared to be sending a broader message to subdue dissent further afield. 

While this episode may subsequently have cost the bank’s former chair, David Gonski, his position, it nevertheless serves to highlight the epistemological challenges facing today’s business leaders. Not least when it comes to such matters as strategy, reputation and investment. 

For example, how could ANZ’s leadership have known that by placing the bank’s leading data centre in the Chinese city of Chengdu things could go so politically awry?  As tensions mount in the region, how could ANZ have known that cyber-attacks on Australia were set to follow, or that US diplomats would be expelled from the very same city? 

Likewise, how could ANZ have known that their data centre would become a political football putatively putting sensitive customer data and information at risk?

Senior executives are not politicians. Instead, they are often talented people focused on serving customers in a quest for organisational success. 

What this means for the future

When it comes to academia, this area of contestability is increasingly important because targeted disinformation campaigns can not only challenge organisations, enterprises and democracies but they can also undermine shared values such as tolerance, diversity and trust; underlying institutional architectures vital in free and open societies. 

It is in this context that McFate’s book is not just a good and timely read. Nor is it merely a wakeup-call for those tasked with defending collective security and the rule of law. Over and above all of these things, it is also a seminal read that lays down the gauntlet to business schools and universities across the democracies.

Nearly century on from Edward Bernays’s book Propaganda, and his placing of public relations on the commercial centre stage, scholars now need to understand and teach aspiring managers and senior executives how to cope with the looming realities of information conflict.

Together, we need to think through the wormholes of a new business-related discipline focused on the production and maintenance of ‘information resilience’.

Business & economics Coronavirus and COVID-19

Hosting a successful writing boot-camp online

Professor Anne-Wil Harzing is dedicated to research mentoring in the Business School at MDX. Here, she discusses how her annual writing boot-camp was taken online during COVID-19 and how a community was still maintained.

From Cumberland Lodge to virtual boot-camp

In 2017, we decided to take the School’s research support activities to the next level by organising an off-site writing boot-camp. The key aim of the boot-camp is to help Business School academics on the cusp of submitting a paper to one of the top journals in their field. Expert mentors assist them to fine-tune and polish their papers in order to reduce the chance that their paper is desk-rejected, i.e. rejected by their targeted journal without receiving reviews.

The following years saw great success as we ran the bootcamp three times in January 2018July 2018, and July 2019 at the stunning Cumberland Lodge. We were therefore devastated when the June 2020 bootcamp had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

However, we were determined to ensure our colleagues would continue to benefit from research support. So we moved the bootcamp online, running it over three separate days with two 1-day breaks in between.

Fourteen academics participated and I had the support of three great bootcamp mentors: Richard CroucherCharles Dennis, and Paul Gooderham, each of us working closely with three or four academics.

Building an online community

It turned out to be surprisingly easy to replicate the strong MDX community feeling online, reinforce the existing connections, and get to know the staff members who had not participated before.

The fourteen participants came from four different departments in the Business School, CEEDR, Economics, Management Leadership and Organisation, & Marketing, Branding and Tourism.

Most participants were Lecturers and Senior Lecturers and relatively early in their publishing career. Although I had some trepidation about whether the format would work at all online, the response was generally very positive: 

Although I look forward to being able to return to Cumberland Lodge this format had its advantages. It’s time efficient and time-keeping was generally very good; it allows colleagues with family commitments to participate rather than having to shoot off in the middle of the boot-camp; and I think spreading it over Wed-Sun with two 1-day breaks allows for reflection and development.

Thanks very much for Anne-Wil’s excellent organsation and arrangement of the virtual boot-camp. Before I was a bit disappointed by not being able to go to Cumberland Lodge with a face-to-face boot-camp but with the virtual boot-camp, I found I was ‘forced’ to focus more on papers when sitting behind the screen. Also, as the sessions were going, I discussed with and learned from others the same as that in a physical boot-camp.

I like the current format. I found it challenging working from home with children, so would prefer Cumberland lodge but overall, I really enjoyed the boot-camp. I thought the three days worked as well as possible virtually through Zoom. The start together as a large group, then smaller breakout rooms, and time to work, was very productive. Anne-Wil did a wonderful job of running the programme online!

The set up

Prior to the boot-camp, all participants had been matched with a senior mentor who works with them during the whole process – from paper submission to the final stage of the revise and resubmit process. They also received the slides which outlined a seven-step process on “how to avoid a desk-reject“.

I learned a lot from Anne-Wil’s presentation which was very informative, and educational. I would like to thank Anne-Wil for sharing the slides and her valuable experience. It’s worth attending the boot-camp just to listen to her presentation.

Day 1: Crafting a memorable, descriptive and easy-to-read title and abstract

We worked in groups of 2, 3 or 4, facilitated by a mentor to improve manuscript titles and write an abstract that is easy to read and guides the editor to the “right” reviewers.

This is the second boot-camp I’ve attended. From a practical point of view the bootc-amp allows you to create space and time to think on your research critically which will lead to improving your work. Besides this, I really enjoy the conversations during the plenary sessions. Last, working on titles and abstracts in small teams makes the process fun

Day 2: First and last impressions count: Polishing the introduction and conclusion

The next steps involved working on the introduction and conclusion sections. After a plenary session, academics worked on their own papers, with seniors providing them with targeted feedback in the break-out rooms.

The best for me was to deal with such professional people like you all and I really appreciated your constructive feedback and your professional approach to us as new researchers. I found it also a good opportunity to develop good research and professional networks. Thanks a lot.

Day 3: Referencing and the journal submission process

The last part of the boot-camp dealt with issues such as using references strategically to signal you are part of the journal conversation. We also discussed the importance of writing a good letter to the editor to help them see the paper’s contribution and pick the right reviewers and getting the paper edited and/or proofread.

What do these boot-camps deliver?

Some Research Deans and Vice-Chancellors reading this post might wonder whether to invest in these activities in their own universities. For them, an important question might be: do they “deliver the goods” in terms of research output? Of course not every participant manages to get their papers published within a reasonable time-frame. That said, our first three boot-camps have resulted in more than thirty papers that are either published or under revise & resubmit.

The feedback we receive from participants demonstrate that they think the boot-camps are effective. However, what is crucial for the success of these boot-camps is that your institution has a collegial culture. Our Middlesex academics enjoyed each other’s company and readily spent time on each others’ papers; this is unlikely to happen if your university’s culture encourages cut-throat competition!

The virtual boot-camp was a great opportunity to connect with colleagues about our research. The boot-camp was the motivation I needed to re-visit an almost-finished paper that I had been pushing to the bottom of my to-do list. The feedback I received was very helpful in reminding me to consider my audience and an incredibly valuable opportunity to preempt problems which would otherwise be identified in the review (or reject) process.

Please keep organising this event in any form. Physical or online, you leave the boot-camp with having gained a really positive experience.

The boot-camp gives us a chance to focus on one paper for a couple of days and this can make a big difference. Discussing problems with mentors and mentees helps to develop new ideas to improve not only the parts of the paper we focus on during the boot-camp, but the overall structure. It is also a very good way to interact and exchange ideas with people outside our own department.

The boot-camp offered concentrated feedback and discussions which are not accessible otherwise. It is a great way to support a research environment and offer colleagues with support and shared experiences. This is a very unique opportunity offered in Middlesex.

This is a shortened version of a post on Anne-Wil’s own academic blog.

Business & economics

Women on board: gender diversity in the banking sector

Dr Sylvia Gottschalk and Dr Edward Bace explore how gender diversity in the banking sector can relate to a reduction of risk taking.

The 2008 financial crisis has been recorded as the biggest disruption of the global financial sector since the Great Depression of 1929. Although it originated in the United States and quickly spread to the banking systems of many large European countries, Canada was noticeably unaffected by this crisis.

Following the failure of Lehman Brothers, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Head, Christine Lagarde, quipped that, “Had it been Lehman Sisters, the world would be different”. She was alluding to IMF’s empirical research showing that a higher proportion of women on boards of banks and financial supervision agencies is associated with greater stability.

A well-documented literature on gender differences with regard to risk-taking has shown that, on average, women tend to be more risk-averse than men.  Based on this evidence, it has been suggested that a greater representation of women on executive boards may improve the risk-taking behaviour of male bankers.

Overhead shot of two women shaking hands

How valid is this so-called “Lehman Sisters hypothesis”?

We investigate the relationship between risk-taking in the financial services industry and the female-to-male ratio in financial institutions in Canada and the US between 2008 and 2019.

Our initial research looked at the simplest form of risk-taking measure, leverage, which is defined as the ratio of total debt to total assets.

Figure 1 and Figure 2 show leverage in Canada and the U.S. between 2008 and 2019, against the female to male ratio on executive boards of financial institutions (FIs), for highly indebted financial institutions (leverage ratios between 100% and 300%).  

Figure 1: Leverage and gender diversity on Canadian executive boards 2008-2019

Figure 1 clearly shows that, between 2008 and 2014, most Canadian FIs that have low gender diversity also have leverage ratios above 300%. Low gender diversity covers female to male ratios between 0 to 30%. Figure 1 also shows that most financial institutions have low leverage (0 to 50%) and no gender diversity.

This suggests that a lack of gender diversity does not necessarily imply high leverage. From 2014 on-wards, we see an increase in the number of women on executive boards compared to previous years. On Figure 1, this translates as a much wider range of female to male ratios, and we now see executive boards where half of the members are female. Over the whole decade following the 2008 Financial Crisis, it is clear that very few financial institutions have leverage above 300%. Most companies have debt levels below 100%.

Our findings also clearly indicate that having more female directors does not necessarily lead to lower leverage. In 2019, some Canadian financial institutions with more than 30% females on board also have a leverage ratio above 300%.

Figure 2: Leverage and gender diversity on US executive boards 2008-2019

In Figure 2 we see that many more US financial institutions have very high leverage (above 300%) than their Canadian counterparts.

In the year of the financial crisis, most companies that have very high leverage also have no gender diversification on executive board. However, there is a wide range of leverage levels among the financial institutions with no female director, and a significant number have leverage ratios below 100%.

Figure 2 shows a similar development as in Canada as far as female to male ratio is concerned. We see a steady increase in the number of women over the decade between 2008 and 2019. In 2019, the representation of women on the executive boards of many US financial institutions reaches 50%. As in the Canadian case, the correlation between high female representation and low leverage is not immediate. Some companies with leverage above 300% also have female to male ratios above 30%, and in one case, even 50%. 

What do the findings show?

Our research shows a clear improvement of female representation in financial decision-making in Canadian and US financial institutions in the decade following the 2008 financial crisis. Nonetheless, the evidence that risk-taking has decreased as a result is less clear.

We can account for this result by noting that the “Lehman Sisters hypothesis” relies crucially on the assumption that women who join banks will conform to certain female stereotypes. Although women are –arguably-on average more risk-averse than men, women choosing a career in the financial services industry may not be so. Gender stereotypes apply to the average individual, but not to all, and there may be a wide range of risk-taking personalities among women.  This suggests that having a woman on the executive board need not lead to more risk-averse decision-making.

Our results can also be explained by our choice of risk measure. The ratio of debt to total assets may not be the best indicator of risk-taking behaviour. We intend to follow this up in future research by looking at a wider range of risk-taking measures. 

Business & economics Social commentary

Unconscious bias: now you see it, now you don’t?

Roger Kline is Research Fellow at Middlesex University Business School. Roger would like to acknowledge the helpful assistance in drafting this blog from Peter Daly, Principal Employment Lawyer at Slater Gordon lawyers.

“I am a black woman who has been harassed at work by a white man. My behaviour and the standard of my work has been praised by every witness, by my line manager and in every appraisal. It is accepted that staff surveys and workforce data on bullying, discipline and recruitment in this organisation strongly suggest there is race discrimination here. You have heard what other BME staff have said about their treatment and mine.

“I would therefore like to ask the panel to consider again how they can possibly conclude race played no part in my treatment. It is agreed I was harassed. Whilst there have been no explicit racist comments you should surely consider whether I have been subjected to race discrimination even if the person harassing me denies it or is even unaware he is a racist?”

 This member of staff then pointed out (this is quoted verbatim from a written appeal) that her employer had recently put all its managers through an “unconscious bias” training programme (at significant expense) but now appeared to deny that such unconscious bias might be a factor in her treatment. Whilst the effectiveness of unconscious bias training is in dispute no one disputes its powerful existence.

 The member of staff who shared this with me was a white colleague. He wanted to know how, in such circumstances, the employer could decide racism was not a factor in her treatment when in his view it clearly was.

 This is not a unique case. A fairly recent high profile example came in the recent Employment Tribunal which awarded Richard Hastings £1million due to his treatment by an NHS Trust. In that Tribunal the Court unanimously agreed that “unconscious” race discrimination played a role, a case I wrote about at the time. Just a few days ago the Court of Appeal used a similar approach.

The statutory framework

The law is reasonably clear and is certainly well known (or should be) to NHS Employment lawyers and senior HR staff as follows:

S.26 Equality 2010 (1) (a) and (b) consider what to do if person (A) harasses another person (B) in a manner which constitutes “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual” (my emphasis).

Section 26 (4) then states thatIn deciding whether conduct has the effect referred to in subsection (1)(b), each of the following must be taken into account:

  • (a) The perception of person B above
  • (b) The other circumstances of the case
  • (c) Whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have had that effect.

In the case considered at the start of this blog, it was agreed by the panel that bullying and harassment had indeed taken place. They correctly noted that:

  • There was no explicit racial comment verbally or in writing
  • There was no other direct evidence that the individual manager was motivated by racism in this case
  • Though it was agreed there was an act of harassment (several in fact) which were committed by a white manager to a BME member of staff, but that in itself (rightly) is not proof that the harassment was racially discriminatory. 

However, what they did not then go on to consider, which a reasonable investigation always ought to do, is whether the explanation given for the harassment fully explained what happened.

In doing so they should have considered :

  • the evidence of the accused person
  • the evidence of other witnesses
  • evidence from within from the wider work environment which might be helpful. That would include workforce data and staff survey data which might (or might not) demonstrate a pattern of institutional discrimination.

A summary of what an investigation into such matters might include is found in my previous article about conducting an inquiry into workplace racism. If the explanation provided for the action does not provide a credible explanation for the actions complained of, then the investigator (or panel) should then consider what other cause there might be, including whether the harassment causing the detriment might be considered racially discriminatory.

Case law

In considering whether the act of harassment might be racially discriminatory the courts have made clear that direct discrimination and discriminatory harassment are unlawful, whether or not the motive or intention which led to the act in question was consciously discriminatory.

Thus, whilst demonstrating that direct discrimination or discriminatory harassment has taken place may well involve an analysis of the reasons for the discriminatory treatment complained of, the courts have made it very clear that it is not necessary to show that the person(s) alleged to have discriminated did so consciously since “unconscious” discrimination is also prohibited, as two House of Lords cases made clear.

Lord Browne-Wilkinson noted that claims under discrimination legislation present special problems of proof as those who discriminate;

‘. . . do not in general advertise their prejudices: indeed they may not even be aware of them’. (Glasgow City Council v Zatar 1998 ICR 120, HL)

In another significant case, the House of Lords similarly stated;

Many people are unable, or unwilling, to admit even to themselves that actions of theirs may be racially motivated” (Nagarajan v London Regional Transport and others [1999] IRLR 572 (HL)).

These decisions of the highest court in the land are reflected in lower court decisions. Thus one EAT ruled that a Tribunal will not assume that a person’s actions are free of subconscious bias even if the person is an honest and reliable witness, and one who genuinely believed they were acting for non-discriminatory reasons. (Gellser and another v Yeshurun Hebrew Congregation UKEAT/2016/0190.)

A similar understanding of “unconscious bias” played a crucial part in the Employment Tribunal decision (not appealed) referred to earlier (Mr R Hastings v Kings College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust: 2300394/2016.

Employers must also bear in mind that discrimination (including race discrimination) need not be the main reason for an act or omission to have been discriminatory. Case law has determined it simply needs to have a “significant influence”:

“… the discriminatory reason for the conduct need not be the sole or even the principal reason of the discrimination; it is enough that it is a contributing cause in the sense of a ‘significant influence’.  (Law Society v Bahl [2003] IRLR 640, at 83).

If it is established that there is an instance of negative conduct which could be assigned to race discrimination, and the employer cannot provide a reasonable and adequate explanation that this was not due to discrimination, then the court or tribunal in accordance with s.136 Equality Act 2010 can draw an inference that the negative conduct was caused by discrimination (see also Fox v Rangecroft [2006] EWCA Civ 1112; and Barton V Investec Henderson Crosthwaite Securities Limit [2003] I.C.R. 1205).

The burden of proof

The burden of proof may therefore shift in discrimination cases. Article 8 of the EU Race Equality Directive (No 2000/43) confirms that where a prima facie case of discrimination exists, it is for the respondent to prove that there has been no discrimination. The same approach is legislated at s.136 Equality Act 2010:

(2) If there are facts from which the court could decide, in the absence of any other explanation, that a person (A) contravened the provision concerned, the court must hold that the contravention occurred.

(3) But subsection (2) does not apply if A shows that A did not contravene the provision.”

So, there are two stages than any HR professional (or indeed trade union official) should consider:

  • First, has the person making the complaint of discrimination sufficiently established the facts from which it may be presumed on the balance of probabilities that there has been discrimination?
  • Second – if established – the burden of proof shifts to the respondent based on the balance of probabilities (Meister v Speech Design Carrier Systems GmbH [2012] Case C-415/10 CJEU).

In reaching such a decision the employer should consider whether there may have been any other non-discriminatory reason that satisfactorily and fully explained the detriment complained of. But if they are unable to do so they must bear in mind that:

  • The decision making need not be consciously racist
  • Race discrimination need not be the sole or even the main factor.

In the case summarised at the beginning, the panel agreed there had been harassment and no convincing explanation had been provided for it. The panel (and indeed HR) should therefore have considered, whether in light of (a) the local NHS staff survey and workforce data, (b) the evidence from other BME staff about their own poor treatment, and (c) the fact that the person who suffered negative treatment from a white manager was from a BME background, whether there was a prima facie case that one motivating factor in the treatment of this member was her race.

They did not do so and thus placed the Trust at risk of financial and reputation cost at a Tribunal. More importantly, perhaps, they betrayed the member of staff who plucked up courage to raise the original concern of harassment and in doing so the Trust may have deterred other staff from raising similar concerns.

Many employers now put their managers through unconscious bias training. It is difficult to understand how they can do this and not consider whether such unconscious bias might be a factor in treatment their staff receive.

Business & economics Social commentary

Safeguarding Malaysia’s women migrant workers

Dr Lilian Miles and Dr Tim Freeman were asked to conduct a piece of research to inform Malaysia’s 12th National Development Plan safeguarding Women Migrant Workers’ Sexual and Reproductive Health and their protection from violence. Here, they outline their findings and recommendations for the future protection of these vulnerable women.

Who we are

In June 2019, UNWOMEN commissioned Dr Lilian Miles and Dr Tim Freeman from Middlesex University Business School to undertake policy development work addressing two specific needs of women migrant workers in Malaysia: meeting Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) needs and preventing Violence Against Women (VAW). We were commissioned for our expertise on policy development in healthcare, and labour regulation in developing countries.

Lilian is Malaysian, and is familiar with the local labour regulatory context. She had already previously worked with the UNFPA in developing a toolkit to support factory women migrants’ SRH needs in Malaysia. Tim is a health policy analyst, with extensive research interests in governance and experience of healthcare development projects in a former career with the Save the Children Fund.  

This time, we worked with UNWOMEN, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) over 10 weeks, to deliver a Strategy Paper on women migrant workers’ SRH and VAWMW needs which will inform the drafting of Malaysia’s 12th National Development Plan (2021-2025). This was an important opportunity for us, to combine our expertise and make a difference to women migrant workers’ health and working conditions in Malaysia. The adoption of recommendations in our Strategy Paper will also influence Malaysia’s progression toward meeting its obligations under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #5: ‘Gender Equality’.

Dr Tim Freeman (centre) and Dr Lilian Miles (right) with members of the research team

What we did

We travelled to Malaysia in June 2019 to conduct research to inform the writing of our Strategy Paper. Lilian had, in her previous research projects, worked with women migrant workers to document their experiences with SRH and VAWMW.  This time, we sought to share these experiences with key stakeholders to explore ways of bringing change for these women.

We met representatives from women’s organisations, migrant organisations, health care providers, employers and Government Ministries. We liaised with the ILO, UNFPA and UNWOMEN throughout. We were supported by local researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia and used questionnaires, qualitative interviews and Nominal Group Technique (NGT) to surface stakeholders’ views on the barriers and challenges to meeting women migrant workers’ SHR needs, and how these can be addressed.

We also sought to explore with these stakeholders how violence against women migrant workers can be prevented. Their views and insights were crucial in enabling us to make recommendations to tackle these two issues in our Strategy Paper.

Themes which emerged from our meeting with stakeholders include:

1. Specific challenges to meeting women migrant workers SRH needs include lack of knowledge on their part about SRH, language barriers, their inability to navigate the local care system and a workplace and regulatory framework which do not recognise such needs.

2. Specific barriers and challenges to preventing VAWMW include xenophobic attitudes toward women migrant workers, patriarchal structures and a lack of enforcement of trafficking legislation. 

3. Ways to address these problems include initiating legislative and regulatory reform to employment and trafficking laws, strengthening collaboration between ministries, and between ministries and civil society organisations, and providing platforms that enable women migrant workers to be part of the solution.

Creating Impact

Significant challenges exist in meeting the SRH needs of women migrant workers, who face wide-ranging problems (e.g. menstruation related pain, reproductive tract infections, lack of contraceptives and contraceptive counselling, unwanted pregnancies, need for abortion services).

In relation to VAW, these women contend with sexual violence in the workplace (a particular problem for domestic workers and trafficked women, who remain invisible). Further, they encounter physical and verbal abuse and psychological threats. These challenges make Malaysia’s 1.5 million women migrant workers a particularly vulnerable population with extensive unmet needs. Our Strategy Paper proposes a suite of practical interventions to address these issues, which require resources and expertise to be pooled in multi-stakeholder collaborations.

The Way Forward

Malaysia continues to be one of the largest importers of foreign labour.  SRH and VAW are ‘wicked’ issues for women migrant workers – requiring urgent responses. Women migrant workers contribute significantly to the Malaysian economy but continue to be marginalised and exploited. They are far removed from the reach of the law. There is thus both a moral and legal case for supporting their SRH needs and protecting them from VAW.

Ensuring their SRH rights and protection against VAW will take time as legal processes and cultural norms need to change. Yet, there are already renewed efforts among civil society organisations, academics, unions and healthcare providers to protect their SRH and guarantee their safety. The policy changes outlined in our Strategy Paper affirm and endorse the need for such change, offering the promise of sustained progress through collaborative endeavour on the part of ministries, civil society organisations and other advocates.

Business & economics Education

CYGNA: Supporting Women in Academia

Anne-Wil Harzing is Professor of International Management at Middlesex University. She’s a founding member of CYGNA, a network for women working in academia. Here, Anne-Wil outlines the origins of CYGNA and shares some of the ways they are supporting female academics.

My interest in the role of gender in academia has a long history. One of the reasons I moved away from my native country – the Netherlands – more than twenty years ago is that I couldn’t see myself having a successful academic career there. At the time, I could almost count the number of female professors in Business & Economics on one hand. A 2018 special issue of Economisch Statistische Berichten, in which I co-authored an article Gender Bias and Meritocracy: how to make career advancement in Economics more inclusive, showed that although the overall number of female professors increased, the Netherlands is still bungling at the bottom of the European rankings.

Working my way through the ranks in the UK and Australia, my interest in the barriers for female academics only increased. Thus when I had a chance to work with a colleague at the University of Melbourne – Isabel Metz – whose research focused on gender in management I jumped at the chance. Together we conducted a major longitudinal study of gender [and international] diversity in editorial boards of academic journals, written up in the blogpost Trailblazers of diversity: editors and editorial board diversity. My own field – International Business – predictably did well on international diversity, but was one of the worst performers in terms of gender diversity. In fact, in 2018 I was – together with two Finnish academics – the first female academic not educated in North America to be elected as a Fellow of the Academy of International Business. Female academics still make up less than 15% of the AIB Fellows.

Move to London leads to CYGNA

When, after 13 years in Austra­lia, I returned to the UK – or rather London – in March 2014, I was struck by two seemingly contradictory aspects of academic life there. First, the larger London area has a very high concentration of universities, making it a potentially very rich and supportive academic environment. Second, most individual female academics that I spoke to felt quite isolated, especially when working in smaller departments where they were often the only ones working at their level or in a specific research area.

Therefore with two junior colleagues – Argyro Avgoustaki and Ling Eleanor Zhang, later joined by Shasha Zhao – I decided to set up a support network for female academics in the London area. It was initially called the HROB network, Human Resources and Organizational Behaviour being the research area of interest of most of our members. After 12 successful meetings as the HROB network, we decided to relaunch the network in January 2017 with a new name (CYGNA) and an official logo. The name CYGNA derives from the female version of the Latin word for SWAN (Supporting Women in Academia Network).

Why we are different from other networks

Our network differed from other academic women’s networks in at least five ways:

  1. Many other women’s networks are single-university networks and cover all disciplines from Archaeology to Zoology. Although this might build institutional coherence, single-discipline networks across universities like CYGNA offer different institutional perspectives, provide better opportunities for research collaborations, and present the opportunity to discuss sensitive issues with those outside one’s immediate circle of colleagues.
  2. Likewise countrywide networks such as WHEN [Women in Higher Education Network] have an important role to play. However, the sheer size of this type of networks makes forming the close bonds that are needed for women to thrive in academia difficult. At CYGNA new members are only added to the mailing list if they are known to at least one active current member and they are introduced and made to feel welcome at every meeting.
  3. Most university and countrywide networks only organize only a few events a year, often fairly short in duration. On average, CYGNA has met for half-day events five times a year since its inception. With 25 meetings organized to date this means lots of opportunities for academic women to meet and a solid stock of accumulated resources on our website.
  4. CYGNA is open to international members. In fact, nearly one third of our members do not live in the UK. This provides members with the opportunity to network outside the UK. Its London location means that we also regularly host international CYGNA members. To date, we have had visitors from Australia, Austria, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, the Netherlands, and the USA. Given that, by coincidence rather than by design, 95% of our UK CYGNA members originate from outside the UK, this makes for a very international network.
  5. CYGNA is resolutely FREE for its members. Our speakers are usually CYGNA members who offer their time for free, whereas the host university sponsors our catering. We do not charge for membership or for attending our meetings. This ensures our network is open for academics at any stage of career and to those who work at less well-resourced institutions.

How CYGNA is helping its members?

Our swans have different reasons for joining the network. Some are mainly interested in the topics discussed in the seminars; some particularly enjoy the networking element or the personal stories of career struggles. Others join our meetings to meet [potential] research collaborators; many of us make CYGNA days our fixed day for meeting our co-authors face-to-face. Several of our swans have used the CYGNA network to gain inside knowledge about job opportunities and different university cultures. Here is what some of our members had to say:

“CYGNA helped me feel supported by women colleagues who share similar experiences and challenges within academia. I gain lots of insights into a variety of topics that I would not have gained in any other way. Also, I find it rewarding to meet with like-minded people, who share similar goals and undergo similar challenges and who support one another with ideas of how to capture opportunities and overcome challenges on our academic journey, all in a relaxed and friendly environment.”

“CYGNA has been a wonderful support to me in various ways. Several colleagues there have helped me with publications and acted as critical readers before submissions. I also found great support when changing job and getting career advice. It was very valuable to have a safe place in which I could discuss specific offers and get advice choosing what was best for me personally and professionally.”

“Being an early career academic in Australia, I feel that CYGNA is a valuable way for me to be connected to an international community of like-minded scholars, who are generous in sharing their experiences and providing helpful advice. The regular emails and updates inspire and motivate me in my research and career. I hope to join one of the CYGNA events in person one day when I visit the UK!”

CYGNA web resources

I maintain a section for CYGNA on my own website,, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and is drawing well over a thousand visitors a day. It includes a summary and pictures of our five meetings a year, a quick overview of the topics covered in our meetings and links to the presentations. We also maintain a readings and inspirations section for female academics and have a Twitter hashtag #cygna_london.

Middlesex supporting CYGNA

Middlesex University is a staunch supporter of CYGNA. We have had a meeting at Middlesex at the start of every CYGNA year since 2015. Supporting (gender) diversity is high up on the agenda at Middlesex. Overall, 60% of Middlesex academics are female and our Middlesex ambassador Angela Griffiths has a special interest in networking for women in the workplace. In October 2018, Middlesex was the first university to receive the UK Investor in Equality and Diversity Charter Mark. In September 2019, Middlesex University Business School will support a 1-day on-site writing retreat for CYGNA members, just like it supports off-site writing boot-camps at Cumberland Lodge for its academic staff.

This blog post was originally published on Professor Anne-Wil Harzing’s website,

Business & economics Health & wellbeing

The NHS Long Term Plan & toxic workplace culture

Roger Kline is Research Fellow at Middlesex University Business school. Here he examines the new NHS Long Term Plan and asks if it’s enough to combat the toxic workplace culture revealed in the organisation by recent research. 

The Government’s new NHS Long Term Plan states an intention:

to build a modern working culture where all staff feel supported, valued and respected for what they do. And where the values we seek to achieve for our patients – kindness, compassion, professionalism – are the same values we demonstrate towards one another. (Para 4.40)

The statement suffers from being made ahead of publication of a long term NHS workforce strategy and from seriously inadequate funding, but the aspiration is important because if achieved (even partly) it will make a significant difference to staff health and well-being, organisational effectiveness and the quality and safety of patient care.

We have some way to go.

Patient and doctor

The toxic workplace

The NHS Staff Survey shows that in each of the last 3 years 24% of employed NHS staff reported they were subject to bullying, harassment or abuse from fellow workers and managers– and it was much higher in some Trusts and in some occupations. Stress is widespread. 53% of staff say they attended work in the last 3 months despite feeling unwell because they felt pressure from their manager, colleagues or themselves.

Staff who raise concerns or admit mistakes too often still meet denial not thanks – as the 2015 Francis Freedom to Speak Up report showed.

Discrimination is rife. We have a very diverse NHS workforce but one which faces systematic discrimination. We are very good at bringing staff into the NHS from across the globe but not so good at respecting the talent and humanity they bring. A large majority of the NHS workforce are female but only a minority of Very Senior Managers are. Staff with disabilities, and staff who are LGBT experience extraordinary levels of bullying.

Staff from BME backgrounds who are now almost one fifth of the NHS workforce experience discrimination in many aspects of their lives. For example:

  • One in four entry grade nurses and midwives are from BME backgrounds but that drops to about one in twenty for very senior nurses and midwives;
  • It is more likely that white shortlisted applicants will be appointed than BME ones;
  • It is more likely that BME staff will be disciplined than white staff and more likely that BME staff will be referred to regulators by their employers;
  • It is more likely BME staff will be bullied by colleagues and managers but, interestingly, it is not more likely that they will be bullied by members of the public. Again we know some groups of staff are especially vulnerable, such as paramedics and midwives;
  • BME staff are more likely to be victimised for raising concerns and less likely to be thanked for doing so even though this will benefit patients. Robert Francis found that just 3% of BME staff said they had been thanked for raising a concern.

Why does this matter?

We know that how NHS workers are treated impacts not only on their health and well-being but on organisational effectiveness and the quality and safety of patient care.

We know that bullying, for example, impacts on increased intentions to leave, job satisfaction and organizational commitment, absenteeism, presenteeism, productivity and the effectiveness of teams. When Duncan Lewis and myself estimated the annual cost of bullying to the NHS last year we came to a very conservative estimate of £2.28 billion a year.

We know that incivility leads staff to intentionally decrease their work effort, the time spent at work, the quality of their work and that 80% of affected staff lose work time worrying about the incident. It is no wonder that there is a consensus that “disrespect in medicine is a threat to patient safety because it inhibits collegiality and cooperation essential to teamwork, cuts off communication, undermines morale, and inhibits compliance with and implementation of new practices.”

I have summarised elsewhere some of the evidence that how staff are treated (especially through effective approaches to diversity and inclusion) benefits patient care and safety.

What’s preventing change?

If we know all this, why have we failed to tackle workplace toxicity? The first reason is denial. Robert Francis concluded in his Public Inquiry report into the Mid Staffordshire scandal that:

“There lurks within the system an institutional instinct which, under pressure, will prefer concealment, formulaic responses and avoidance of public criticism” and “an institutional culture which ascribed more weight to positive information about the service than to information capable of implying cause for concern.”

The second reason is a difficulty with having honest conversations about bullying or racism. We are anxious about raising concerns or admitting mistakes. In too many organisations difficult conversations about bullying or discrimination fail as “protective hesitancy” is triggered or a blame culture inhibits openness for fear of the consequences.

The third reason is the flawed paradigm which dominated much NHS HR approach to tackling workplace culture strategy until recently, in which the existence of policies, procedures, and training were seen as the key to make it safe and effective for individual members of staff to raise concerns about bullying, discrimination, unfair disciplinary action and unsafe practice. There is now a move towards a much more proactive and preventative approach, but there is still, too often, an excessive reliance on policies, procedures and training as HR departments drown in transactional work.

Yet research suggests this approach is fundamentally flawed. For example, a recent ACAS review concluded that “In sum, while policies and training are doubtless essential components of effective strategies for addressing bullying in the workplace, ……. research has generated no evidence that, in isolation, this approach can work to reduce the overall incidence of bullying in Britain’s workplaces.”

Similarly, Kalev and Dobbin found in a major study of diversity initiatives in 708 US companies that attempts to reduce managerial bias through diversity training and diversity evaluations were the least effective methods of increasing the proportion of women in management.” They criticised, what they called the “methodological individualism” which relies on individuals to challenge institutional shortcomings.

A different approach is needed (and is gaining some traction) in which NHS employers make it their responsibility to be proactive and take a “public health” approach, to workplace culture, using data to identify hot spots of poor practice (and good practice) and thus help change the organisational climate which permits discrimination, bullying or a blame culture.

Moving forward

So what should be done, since we do now know what some of the shared characteristics of effective interventions are?

Firstly, as in any other NHS challenge we should avoid “comfort seeking” information and seek out challenging data. Data does not explain why there is a problem but it will highlight where problems (and good practice) exist. In the NHS we have a wealth of workforce and staff survey data to draw on.

Secondly, improving the opportunities for, and treatment of, staff are not just about statutory compliance but about service improvement.  Treating staff better is good for staff, organisations and patient care. There is a raft of evidence now that inclusion, psychological safety, and the ability to have difficult conversations, can radically improve how staff are treated and improve creativity, productivity, innovation, risk awareness, turnover and team working.

Thirdly, we should refuse to collude in unevidenced interventions. Too many Action Plans on bullying, recruitment, and discipline still resemble tick boxes rather than evidenced plans. Changing biased outcomes in recruitment or development require a multifaceted approach rather than reliance on individual “silver bullets” such as unconscious bias training or placing a BME person on a panel. Those proposing workforce interventions should always be asked to explain “why what is being proposed is likely to mitigate or remove the problem that’s been identified?”

Fourthly, data driven accountability at every level is the cornerstone of good management and leadership. That does not mean the Board quietly meeting and deciding what everyone else should do. Nor does it mean thumping the table when things go wrong. It means patiently engaging and discussing with staff and managers what the challenges are, what the research and data says, and then what should be done, how, why and when. Wherever possible, support should drive change but senior managers responsible for recruitment, promotion, staff development, discipline and turnover will need to explain why patterns of behaviour and outcomes fall short of what is required and agreed – and then be expected and helped to change outcomes.

Fifthly, leaders who do not model the behaviours they expect of others have no chance of changing workplace culture. Leaders who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk cannot change the cultures of an organisation. We should beware the fad that somehow “changing culture” can change behaviours when the evidence suggests that, to the contrary, changing behaviours is what will change culture.

Sixth, we need to recognise that whilst the principles underlying effective change are simple, undertaking and sustaining change can be complex. Take recruitment. We know there are numerous ways in which bias can creep into recruitment and promotion processes. We know that successfully challenging individual decisions is usually almost impossible for individual members of staff. Data driven accountability, however, can help challenge patterns of bias and then adopt specific interventions which draw on the research about bias so we can mitigate or remove it.

Seventh, we have to focus attention on learning not blame. Mistakes happen. Anticipating them, admitting them, and acting on them is what counts. Vast amounts of money and time have been wasted on unnecessary disciplinary action and referrals to regulators. We know how to reduce discipline and simultaneously improve safety. Some trusts are doing it.

One critical driver of disciplinary investigations is when managers feel unable to have informal honest conversations with staff when mistakes are made or behaviour is inappropriate. The shared characteristic of effective interventions is a speedy response, a focus on learning not blame, and the insertion of accountability so managers cannot commence a formal investigation without explaining to a very senior manager why that was the appropriate response to an incident.

Eighth, in bullying even more than any other workplace culture challenge, individual grievances are not the way forward. Even if they win, the member of staff often has to leave their employer. In bullying, the first challenge is an acceptance there is an organisational problem. It is not enough to just hold individuals to account because it is the organisational climate from the top that permits or encourages bullying that has to stop.

Ninth, it is essential that those groups of staff most impacted by specific toxic aspects of culture have their voice heard and their lived experience understood and influence change. That means, for example, that staff who have been victimised for raising concerns should influence safe cultures for raising concerns, that BME staff impacted by discrimination are heard loud and clear within the board room, and so on.

Tenth, a mix of accountability and scrutiny will involve consequences. These may be incentives or they may be sanctions but they must be linked to transparency. They may involve measurable targets (what gets counted is what gets done). Initiatives such as the Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES), which is both contractual for healthcare providers (public and private) and inspected against by the CQC, were created around this evidence base. The long term success of the WRES, for example, if it is to build on its initial progress, will require a relentless focus on using evidenced interventions.

There are some signs that national NHS leaders are starting to understand the importance of workplace culture as being more than declarations. There is no quick fix to change the treatment of staff in a sustainable way. It requires more than declarations, speeches and policies. It requires an understanding of how such change can take place and be sustained. Serious progress on workplace culture is essential and possible even at a time of immense funding pressures, but only if we learn from what has gone before.

Business & economics Education

Creating a supportive research culture

Anne-Wil Harzing is Professor of International Management at Middlesex University. Since joining the Middlesex University Business School, Anne-Wil has been working with colleagues to foster a more supportive and collaborative research culture. Here, she outlines some of the strategies that have proven successful.

After spending thirteen years in Australia at the University of Melbourne as PhD director, Assistant Dean RHD and Associate Dean Research, I was looking for a new challenge. Rather than join another traditional research university, I wanted to work somewhere where I felt I could make a real difference. Middlesex University Business School in London fit the bill perfectly, with its strong focus on research that matters – both to society and to its students – and a vision that focuses squarely on “transforming potential into success.”

Middlesex is a post-1992 university. Hence initially its main focus had been on its teaching mission. However, over the years its research performance continued to grow. In 2014 it was ranked #38 on the REF power ranking for Business & Management in the UK (out of 101 universities). It was the 2nd ranked post-1992, very narrowly pipped by Portsmouth. It also outranked a lot of “red-brick” universities and even a few Russell group universities. Even so, its strong academic staff potential meant that there was considerable scope to improve even further; in 2014 I was therefore appointed to help transform its research potential into success.

Collective research support initiatives

Working closely with Deans Anna Kyprianou and Joshua Castellino, Research Deans Richard Croucher and Stephen Syrett and Departmental Research leaders we set out to provide an even more supportive environment for research in the Business School, actively fostering a collaborative rather than a competitive research culture. This didn’t mean spending bucket-loads of money, but rather to develop a range of targeted, but strategic initiatives. In addition to the “standard fare” of research allowances, conference funding, a research leave scheme, departmental research seminars, and departmental newsletters, this included:

  • Research Facilitation Funding: Academics can apply for seed-corn funding (up to £2,500) for developing impact, small research projects, knowledge transfer, and larger funding proposals, as well as feeding research into teaching. To date over fifty projects have been supported.
  • Research Clusters: Support to develop new and existing research groupings within the Business School and across the University to facilitate collaboration in funding applications, research networks, impact, knowledge exchange and published outputs. 
  • Research lunches/coffees/teas: An informal – walk in walk out – monthly platform to discuss anything related to research. Features updates by the Research Dean, Research & Cluster Leaders, and Q&A. Allows academics to get to know colleagues [especially outside their own department] and find research collaborators.
  • Staff development groups: 6-weekly opt-in meetings for five groups of 5-8 academics, with the specific group size and composition varying depending on availability. These meetings are explicitly multi-purpose/­flexible in format. We provide feedback on each other’s draft papers, research ideas, and R&Rs. However, meetings also serve as a forum to meet new colleagues, solicit advice, and have (un)scheduled discussions on any academic topics. Every round is supported by a follow-up email with collated resources related to the topics discussed in the five meetings. This means everyone benefits from the discussions in each of the groups even if they haven’t been able to attend one of the rounds.
  • Research methods skills development: A range of research methods training courses on topics such as action research, multi-dimensional scaling, econometric methods, working with big data. Usually organized by one of the Research Clusters.
  • Wider academic skills development seminars on topics such as Networking and External Engagement for Academic Success, Publishing in Management Education journals and How to ensure your research achieves the impact it deserves.

Individual support for academic career development

These collective events are supplemented with individual career development meetings for junior staff, as well as “on-tap” email support for quick questions and advice on anything related to academic work. From March 2016 onwards, these efforts have been supported by my blog on all things academia, with postings in the following categories: Academia Behind the Scenes, Academic Etiquette, Announcements, Classic Papers, Conferences, CYGNA, From my Inbox, Middlesex, Positive Academia, Publish or Perish Tips, Research Focus, and That’s Interesting. In the first three years the blog has seen more than 170 postings, including guest posts by some of my co-authors and Middlesex colleagues.

Taking it to the next level: Writing bootcamp

In 2018, we decided to take to take the School’s research support activities to the next level by organising a Friday-to-Sunday off-site writing boot camp. This boot camp was intended to help Business School academics on the cusp of submitting a paper to one of the top journals in their field to fine-tune and polish their papers. Thus in the third week of January eighteen academics spent a wonderful weekend at the amazing Cumberland Lodge working on their papers, an experience which was repeated in July with another twenty-three academics.

The feedback provided by the attendees illustrates that the supportive atmosphere in which these events were run was much appreciated. Our Middlesex academics enjoyed each other’s company and readily spent time on each other’s papers; this is unlikely to happen if your university’s culture encourages cutthroat competition!

“I really appreciate the opportunity to interact with colleagues (junior and senior) during both formal working time and ‘informal’/social time (at meals and in the evenings). Equally important, the boot-camp really strengthened my sense of belonging to a supportive research community at MUBS. Thank you so much for engendering this core aspect to help build my confidence professionally.”

 “The best thing for me was the non-judgemental nature of the bootcamp. No one needed to get nervous of their own work. Everyone was so supportive, encouraging each other to reflect on and sharpen their arguments, and presenting the best work possible for their target journals. Everyone shared their work and their thoughts about their papers freely, knowing that they will get constructive feedback from peers and mentors.”

CYGNA: Supporting Women in Academia Network

A lot of my female Middlesex colleagues are also participating in CYGNA, a network supporting female academics in the broad area of Business & Management. CYGNA is meeting five times a year at different London-based universities for half-day events, with seminars focusing on academic and personal development as well as plenty of opportunities for networking.

A quick overview of all the topics covered can be found here. We also maintain a readings and inspirations section for female academics and have a Twitter hashtag #cygna_london. In May 2019 we’ll have our first “branch” meeting in Leeds and we will celebrate our 5th year anniversary with a full-day writing bootcamp at Middlesex University in September 2019.

A bumper year for international research rankings

Obviously it is impossible to conclusively establish a direct link between investing in a supportive and collaborative research culture and improved research outcomes. That said, it is probably no coincidence that Middlesex University in general – and the Business School in particular – have dramatically improved their position in the two major international research rankings: the Times Higher Education ranking and the ARWU Shanghai ranking.

Times Higher Education – Success all around

Middlesex University was featured in the Times Higher Education (THE) ranking for the first time three years ago when the list was expanded from 400 to 800 universities; Middlesex debuted in the 600-800 band. We quickly moved up to 501-600 in 2017, to the high 400s of the 401-500 band in 2018 and to the low 400s of the same band in 2019. We are hoping to rank in the top-400 in the 2020 ranking, which will come out in September 2019.

Figure: Middlesex THE ranking 2016-2019

Likewise, we entered the THE Young Universities ranking for universities under 50 years of age when it was expanded from 100 to 150 universities in June 2016. Although we have been ranked in the 101-150 band for the last three years, we have moved up within that band every year. It therefore looks like we are on track to be ranked in the top-100 in June 2019. We might even become the top-ranked UK University in the Young Universities ranking.

In the 2019 THE ranking, Middlesex also ranked for the first time in no less than three of the four main disciplines that we are active in: Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities and Clinical, Pre-clini­cal & Health, with a world-wide top-300 ranking for the Social Sciences. We also ranked in four of the five specialised subject rankings that THE publishes: Computer Science, Business & Economics, Education, and Psychology, only narrowly missing out on a ranking in Law because we didn’t meet the hurdle for the minimum number of publications.

ARWU Shanghai ranking – Business School success

Since August 2018 we are also ranked in the ARWU Shanghai top-1000 universities worldwide. This is a remarkable achievement given that 70% of the ranking is determined by criteria such as publications in Science and Nature and Nobel Prize winners amongst staff and alumni. These criteria do not tend to favour the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Engineering, disciplines that make up the bulk of our research activity. Universities highly ranked in the general ARWU ranking typically have a strong presence in the Life Sciences and Natural Sciences, disciplines that are not substantively represented at Middlesex.

As a result, the ARWU Shanghai subject rankings are a much better yardstick for our research performance. These rankings focus largely on Web of Science publications, field-normalised citations, international collaborations and the number of publications in a small set of top journals in each field. In 2018, Middlesex was ranked in no less than seven of the eight subject rankings related to Business School: Management, Business Administration, Tourism, Economics, Law, Sociology and Political Science, only narrowly missing out on a ranking in Finance because we didn’t meet the hurdle for the minimum number of publications.

Figure: Middlesex ARWU Shanghai ranking for Sociology

We are the only post-92, and one of only ten universities in the UK overall, to be ranked in all seven subject areas. In Management, Business Administration, Tourism, and Sociology, we rank on par or even above many redbrick universities, as well as quite a few Russell group universities. The screenshot above shows our ranking in Sociology, reflecting Middlesex’s strong focus on the Sociology of Work, with research topics such as return migration of highly skilled migrants, the living wage, modern slavery, corporate citizenship in South Africa, microfinance and women’s empowerment, social security and welfare reform, and social and sustainable enterprises.

These research topics reflect another thing that attracted me to Middlesex University Business School. It is one of the most diverse institutions I have come across, both in terms of disciplinary background and in terms of national background. Many of my colleagues have a background in the broader Social Sciences and Humanities representing disciplines such as History, Political Science, Law, Education, Sociology, Psychology, Public Policy, and Development Studies. They also come from all corners of the world; we often have as many nationalities as participants in our meetings.

More generally, it is interesting to see how rankings that focus purely on metrics provide a result that is quite different from those that focus largely on reputation surveys. Predictably, post-92 universities such as Middlesex do better on the former than on the latter. Hopefully, their research reputation will soon catch up with their strongly improved research performance!

This blog post was originally published on Professor Anne-Wil Harzing’s website,