The president and chief financial officer of Imperial College London ‘created or contributed’ to a workplace culture which tolerated favouritism, exclusion and the making of disparaging comments, according to a redacted report published today.
The report from the independent investigation by barrister Jane McNeill QC was originally shared with Imperial’s governing council in 2020, and Alice Gast, president, and Muir Sanderson, CFO, both apologised for their bullying behaviour in December 2020.
While McNeill’s recommendations were published at the time, her findings were not. Following a freedom of information request by the Daily Mail, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) last week ordered Imperial to publish the report, redacting personal information on participants in the process, including witnesses and complainants.
But the ICO said that portions of the report containing personal information about Gast and Sanderson – both of whom are still in post – should be released. The redactions, denoted by [•] in the report, sometimes make it unclear whether specific findings relate to one or more members of staff.
The investigation found that Gast’s behaviour did amount to bullying, and that she had behaved towards a member staff in a manner that had undermined them and excluded them. Similarly Sanderson was found to have bullied a member or members of staff in 2020.
The investigation found that both Gast and Sanderson had “created or contributed to a culture which involves and tolerates favouritism, exclusion, the making of disparaging comments about others and at times a lack of respect for others”.
Sanderson had “created or contributed to a culture where aggression and the making of inappropriate and offensive comments is tolerated”.
McNeill wrote that “my findings do not enable me to conclude that there is a culture of bullying at the college, all of the above types of behaviours fall within the definition of bullying in the antibullying policy. The manner in which such behaviours are dealt with does not always reflect best practice in a modern workplace.”
More than 50 witnesses were interviewed as part of the investigation. Gast’s behaviour was described as belittling and undermining – both personally and professionally. Staff’s self-esteem and self-confidence were “badly affected” and one staff member suffered from a lack of sleep and weight-loss.
In addition to the disrespectful and sometimes unpleasant way in which Gast had spoken to staff, one staff member was prevented from carrying out much of the role they were employed to perform at the university during the Covid-19 crisis.
The report says: “I do not consider that Gast deliberately set out to bully [•] but she must have known or closed her eyes to the fact that her treatment of [•] would cause [•] significant humiliation and lack of self-esteem.”
The report reads: “The manner in which [Sanderson] behaved towards [•], in particular between about 27 February and 16 March, was undermining and, in some instances, condescending and offensive. A stark example of this was addressing [•] as ‘young lady’ and telling her to ‘watch [her] tone’.”
His behaviour was variously described as aggressive, insulting, disparaging and excluding. “I was impressed by the many positive things said about [Sanderson] but he also uses language and exhibits behaviours from time to time which are abhorrent in a modern workplace and at odds with the values of the College,” reads the report.
I couldn’t always perform to my best abilities because of that culture. You end up treading on egg-shells and I did quite a lot of that” – Imperial College employee
McNeill said that in relation to both Gast and Sanderson, several witnesses described a culture of favouritism: you are “in or out”, “the favourite child”, “a hero or zero” or in the “in gang or out gang”. One witness described that there were a lot of employees at any one time “in the rubbish pot”.
While references were made to “alpha male” and “macho” behaviours, in particular in relation to Sanderson and some of his finance, operations and IT team, there was insufficient evidence that there was a sexist culture. But McNeill said that Sanderson’s comment “watch your tone, young lady” should alert Imperial’s chair of council to a risk of a complaint of sex discrimination arising from similar behaviours.
McNeil wrote: “Similarly, comments have been referred to which could suggest negative treatment relating to other protected characteristics. [•] [Sanderson] made a derisive comment… [•] and used the expression ‘[leaving] the plantation’. These types of comments have no place in a modern workplace. It is troubling in this day and age that one of the most senior employees at an institution like Imperial College should think that a comment made by a [former] senior employee referring to a ‘one-armed black lesbian’ should be treated as a joke.”
One witness described the culture at Imperial as “toxic” from the perspective of modern leadership and management, including risk management, because people do not share things or ask for feedback. “Collaboration is so much more fruitful than vicious internal competition,” they said. Staff should not be treated like “naughty little children”. Many meetings are male-dominated and women are “talked over or talked through”.
Another referred to a culture where the abilities and achievements of academic staff were not fully recognised, commenting that: “I couldn’t always perform to my best abilities because of that culture. You end up treading on egg-shells and I did quite a lot of that.”
The report makes as uncomfortable reading now as it did in 2020. I have apologised for my actions and I remain sorry” – Muir Sanderson, CFO
However, in her conclusion McNeil said that data on bullying cases at Imperial did not suggest a culture of bullying. She wrote: “However, I consider that in those parts of the college considered in this report and at the most senior level, there is a culture of making disparaging comments about, undermining and excluding others.”
Upon publication of today’s redacted report, Gast said: “It was personally devastating for me to find that my behaviour fell short of both the College’s and my own expectations and that it had affected a colleague in this way. I repeat my sincere apologies.
“I pledged to use the experience as a catalyst for positive change for both me and Imperial. In the two years since these events took place, I have worked hard to ensure that my colleagues feel fully supported as we all contribute to improvements in the College culture.”
Sanderson said: “The report makes as uncomfortable reading now as it did in 2020. I have apologised for my actions and I remain sorry. I cooperated fully with the investigation and accepted the disciplinary sanctions applied. Since then, I have been trying to learn from the lessons of that period. It is still work in progress but I am always encouraged when someone comments that they can see the results of my efforts. I intend to stay focused on this.”
In an email to employees and students at Imperial this morning, John Allan, chair of council, said: “Great strides have been taken to improve Imperial’s culture – tackling underlying issues – and to become better at living up to our values. This is some of the most important work we commit to as an institution and as a community.
“Bullying is a serious matter. We must continue to challenge, investigate and act to eliminate such behaviours.”