Afraid of the boss
Reading time: 8 minutes (1,529 words)
Hans G., the RUG manager who is believed to be the key figure in a large fraud case, had created a ‘family’ around him. He had a group of yes-men who knew exactly what the head of the maintenance department was doing, says a business owner who was involved in the fraud. He emailed G.’s supervisor for years to try and reveal the matter, he says. But nothing happened. ‘On the contrary, everyone looked at me like I was the bad guy. That’s just horrible, I can tell you that much.’
And that is exactly what is bothering the Board of the University: the fact that several employees stayed silent for years, when they knew that Hans G. was committing fraud and losing the RUG hundreds of thousands of euros all the while. ‘This is a question that is foremost on our minds as well: how is it possible that people didn’t come forward about this? This is about the culture at the RUG’, Sibrand Poppema recently said during a council meeting.
Why do employees not expose the wrongs they witness? Is that something that is only an issue in this case, or is it a common occurrence at the RUG? Should the corporate culture be amended?
The president is not yet ready to address these questions. He will wait for the results of the internal investigation done by Bureau Hoffmann. Lecturer and council member Mathieu Paapst has an opinion on the matter. ‘In general, excesses such as these occur at independently operated departments that have had the same manager for a long time and that have a serious hierarchy’, he says. ‘You could say that whenever little empires are created, the subjects become loyal to their leaders for various reasons. And once people see that poorly performing supervisors are able to keep their jobs without any fuss, they either give up or stop talking about it. Some large organisations change their supervisors every four years. Maybe that’s something the RUG could do’, he thinks.
‘People are expected to be loyal to the organisation and management’, reacts Hilly Mast, study advisor and erstwhile president of the University Council. ‘The era when the organisation served its people is a thing of the past. People now serve the organisation. That means they have to adopt a cooperative attitude.’
Or maybe it is just a case of a sliding scale, thinks Personnel Faction chair Bart Beijer. ‘Like the frog that’s being boiled and doesn’t figure it out until it’s too late, as opposed to the frog that you throw into hot water who immediately knows what’s wrong.’
According to union spokesperson Maarten Goldberg, it’s not really a matter of there being one single culture. There is a large difference between support and scientific staff, he thinks. ‘Among the support staff, there is a bigger gap between the ‘working people’, such as secretaries, doormen, analysts, and IT people, and the scientifically trained ‘thinkers’, such as policy advisors, communication specialists, and HR advisors.’
These ‘thinkers’ will be hard-pressed to criticise the system that creates their jobs, thinks Goldberg. ‘A lot of scientific staff says silent because they don’t have a permanent position and are dependent on maintaining a good working relationship with their colleagues if they want to stay on for the next project.’
And a supervisor does not necessarily a good manager make, thinks Goldberg. ‘They are made department head because they’re the best researcher, fund raiser, etc.’
Confidential advisor Marijke Dam does not think there is such a thing as a singular university culture. ‘The culture at one department can differ radically from that at another’, she says. According to Dam, something else is going on. A simple, human reaction.
As a confidential advisor, she often knows quite early when there is something going on at a department. Even before the reorganisation of the canteens had been announced, several employees came to talk to her. That is how she knew something was going to happen.
‘It was different in this particular case’, she says. ‘There were some signals from the maintenance department that he was an intimidating figure. Those are the kinds of things everyone knows. But no one said anything even remotely pertaining to fraud.’
When something really serious is going on, people often hesitate going to the confidential advisor. ‘When I get notified of a whistleblower, often the first thing people say is: ‘It doesn’t end well for whistleblowers, does it?’ Even though I can protect them, that image persists. It makes it harder for people to come forward.’
People fear for their jobs, which is why they will not say anything. ‘But as children, we already learn that tattling is wrong. There exists a natural reticence, even if people know that is wrong.’ In addition, image has become more and more important at the university, and people do not want to air their dirty laundry.
‘The atmosphere in the academic community has grown hard. There is enormous pressure to publish. Some people retain their integrity in this, but others serve themselves only, at whatever cost. And if someone wants to do wrong in that kind of environment, they will not be punished. Everyone is so performance-oriented that lines blur. You want people to perform, so where do you draw the line? Because of that, it takes people a long time before they deal with someone who crosses that line.’
A bad supervisor can also be a contributing factor. ‘A firm and decisive leadership style may also cross the line sometimes. It could be a style where there is no room for other people or their input. This can cause an uncomfortable atmosphere.’
A clear picture has emerged after several conversations with sources: Hans G. is a difficult supervisor. Someone who does not share information and brooks no argument. ‘In an environment with an intimidating supervisor, the fear that something will eventually go wrong is even bigger’, says Dam. ‘When you’re dealing with this kind of fairly intimidating behaviour, people take a step back. They’re afraid.’
It’s also eminently human: to think you are the only one and everyone else is in on it. ‘I’m the only one who sees this, so I’d better take a step back. All those mechanisms play a part’, thinks Dam.
What’s more, the fraud simply went unnoticed. An extra receipt for a project worth millions, a donation to a fishing competition, a slightly oversized dinner bill – no one notices what they are not looking for. Besides, Hans G. tightly controlled many projects. Several sources say that he took care of everything himself.
At the same time, everyone at the RUG who does anything involving the buildings knew that Hans G. had his favourite service companies. The vans parked near the university buildings always belonged to the same companies. ‘‘All those odd jobs; it’s easy to have someone on hand for those. Someone who knows the buildings. Otherwise someone has to travel three hours from the other side of the country.’ That is the kind of logic that misled a lot of people’, says Dam.
The fraud was a culmination of events that, when put together, turned out to be a big thing, thinks the confidential advisor. She experienced it herself. Dam found out that the same podium kept being used for different events. It was a podium that was owned by the RUG, yet it had to be rented from the same installation company again and again, even though that company normally never rented out podia. The same company also delivered and set up the podium every time.
‘I thought: surely that doesn’t make any sense? But I ended up doing nothing about it. It was just too small and vague to say something about. There have been many of these small things. Afterwards, you hear everyone else say that they noticed the same companies every time. But hindsight is 20-20, right?’
The fraudster, or fraudsters, played a very clever game, Mast thinks. It has nothing to with corporate culture. ‘They probably had a really bold approach.’ Dam agrees. ‘I think it all comes down to how this man projected himself. He was crafty, and went about it in a damned smart way.’
But how do you make sure that employees do say something in case this happens again? ‘I’ve been thinking about that’, Dam starts. ‘You try to organise things in such a way that nothing can go wrong, and then it does. How do you ensure that people sound the alarm? I don’t know how you would go about that. Staying silent when these kinds of things happen is just so very human. But I do want to urge people to please come forward. The RUG has an arrangement that protects whistleblowers.’