Lindsay Shepherd isn’t the only person who deserves better

The important thing to understand about Lindsay Shepherd’s mistreatment (that has been acknowledged in a very thoughtful and constructive letter from the University president) is that it is not an isolated case. This kind of mistreatment occurs worldwide, in private companies as well as in public institutions. It’s not a problem that’s isolated to ‘academic elites’, and I know plenty of cases that were far worse, but which I can’t prove.

What is unique is that the conversation was recorded and made public; also that the University has acknowledged the mistreatment, and that apologies have been made. That makes the recording a case study that can be examined, to illustrate the wider problem, which is inadequate supervision and complaints handling competence.

The meeting starts out sensibly enough, with Rambukkana asking whether Shepherd could imagine how playing the video might be seen as creating a threatening environment. Shepherd replies that she couldn’t see any threat, but could certainly see how some students might find it challenging.

Failure to investigate

Shepherd wants to see the complaint. Pimlott interrupts, and asks to hear Shepherd’s side of the story. She talks about how she screened the video, that a debate ensued, and that the debate seemed friendly. She stresses that she doesn’t understand what the complaint is about.

What we know now, is that the complaint did not exist; no official complaint had been recorded, and no informal complaint was raised either. This explains why nobody answers her question. As the continues, Shepherd repeatedly tries to make sense of what is happening, asking “What exactly is it that I’m supposed to have done?”

This is absolutely critical, and distressingly commonplace. On hearing that something might be wrong, a meeting has been convened to tell Shepherd that she’s doing the wrong thing and she has to stop. No effort was made to investigate the merits of the alleged complaint (if an effort had been made, they’d have realized that they didn’t have a leg to stand on).

This also happens (among many other places) in retail work. An angry customer appears, the manager placates the customer, then applies a disciplinary process to the person that the customer was angry about. Never mind the possibility that the customer might have been wrong, or lying, or upset for reasons that had nothing to do with the person who served them. All too often, managers destroy the confidence of their staff and the integrity of their organizations because they assume that staff are at fault.

Having failed to diagnose the situation, Rambukkana then proceeds to apply one of the most common counterproductive supervisory strategies: to assume that the reason things went wrong is because the person you’re dealing with doesn’t understand the importance of the issues.

When someone has done nothing wrong, this is obviously egregious. But suppose for a moment that she had done something wrong; it’s still a pointless and counterproductive intervention. Had she done something wrong, she’d need advice that allows her to identify what’s wrong, and what the right behaviour would have been. That would actually prepare her for this situation in future.

This is followed by a game of ‘guess the sinister motive’. Having failed to recognize that an outcome (the existence of the ‘not actually a complaint’) might not be intentional, Rambukkana theorizes that Shepherd is acting out, or is a fan of Jordan Peterson. Shepherd clarifies that she disagrees with Jordan Peterson. When you play ‘guess sinister the motive’, the odds are that you will lose; this particular loss is spectacular.

And so it goes for the next twenty minutes, with Rambukkana and Pimlott taking turns to guess at what might be wrong, and to provide the right intervention to fix it. The humiliation of this particular case is that Shepherd has done nothing wrong, and therefore all of their guesses are doomed. Shepherd refuses to make a false confession, and keeps returning to the question “What am I supposed to have done?”

Failure to achieve relevance

Adria Joel (from the Gendered Violence Support and Prevention Program) quotes policy without meaningfully applying it to the specific context. And here we have another misunderstanding of what management’s job is. The job of management is not to remember policy, it is to apply policy to a situation. To add value, not to regurgitate words.

Even in a situation where the complaint doesn’t exist, a useful expert in gendered violence and support would be able to come up with a hypothetical example, with a meaningful explanation of why the policy is relevant to the situation.

Once again, this is not a problem that’s isolated to the Shepherd case. The question “Why do we have supervisors?” is rarely one that is answered rigorously. However, supervisors will find themselves in rigorous situations, and they need to know why they are there if they are going to succeed.

Failure to supervise

The bit that outrages me occurs at thirty-seven minutes and twenty minutes when Rambukkana asks “Do you write out your lesson plans?” It’s difficult for me to maintain my composure when hearing him ask that question: how in the world does he, as her supervisor, not already have the answer to that question? How in the world can he, as her supervisor, have any confidence that she’s doing the right thing by his students without reviewing her lesson plans? (Maybe not all of them, but the number should probably be higher than zero.)

And so he proposes that perhaps he should review her lesson plans before she teaches a class. This is a perfectly sensible thing that he should have been doing anyway, but in the context of her mistreatment, it becomes a punitive act. His failure to supervise is presented as her failure, because it’s clear that he wouldn’t have supervised her if she hadn’t drawn attention to her performance in a negative way.

A few moments later, he gives her some advice on the fundamentals of designing a lesson plan; when she should do it, and what she should be focusing on when she does so. He states that he’s making assumptions about how she arranges her work, which is something where he (as the more experienced party) should be providing direction, not making assumptions.

Failure to consider the welfare of the supervised

At the end of the meeting, Shepherd wants to know what’s going to happen next. Is she fired? Is there more to come? Can she go back to the job she loves and move on from this? The generous assumption is that these questions came as a surprise.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. Rambukkana is worried, because Shepherd didn’t confess, and (most likely) he doesn’t yet understand that the complaint doesn’t really exist. He certainly doesn’t understand that the reason she didn’t confess is because she did nothing wrong.

Shepherd has nothing to hold on to. No timeframes, no process, nothing but the vague knowledge that the people who refused to listen to her are worried about what she might do next. She has not been given any reason to believe that the next conversation will be fair. All she knows is that they didn’t listen, and that she has a recording. So she turns elsewhere for advice, and ends up sending the recording to the media.

Institutional failure

We should reflect on Rambukkana’s failures in a way that is sympathetic to him. If we are willing to say “Shepherd can’t be expected to know about teaching unless someone shows her the way,” justice demands that we say “Rambukkana can’t be expected to know about supervising unless someone shows him the way.”

Where is his manager in all of this? Where is the person saying “Don’t make assumptions about what a person starting out under your supervision knows, tell them what you expect.” Where is the person saying “She’s going to have questions about the complaint. You’re going to need to provide good answers to those questions.”

Anyone with any experience dealing with complaints will see those problems before they occur. But just as Shepherd is just a novice, doing the best she can with inadequate support, Rambukkana is in a very similar predicament. He has his own reasons to be scared, and has probably never seen a situation like this before. (Pimlott, easily the most confident of the three interviewers has seen something like it before; 16 years ago, according to his comments.)

Why is he going it alone? He’s going it alone for the same reason that supervisors and managers everywhere go it alone; because there’s a widespread assumption that management is a talent. Rather than supervising managers meaningfully, we assume that people either ‘have it or they don’t.’ We rely on ‘survival of the fittest’ to show us who the managers are instead of having explicit conversations about what we want and what we expect.

There’s far worse than this

Lindsay Shepherd is not a special case, and to the extent that Wilfred Laurier University is unusual, they are unusual because they have apologized, and seem to be making an effort to fix the problem. With luck, they’ll be downright exceptional and address the institutional and structural problems; worst case, they’re overwhelmingly likely to improve in the area of free speech and of handling ‘safe space’ complaints.

People get fired because their boss made a series of mistakes. Or because their ability to identify problems outpaces their diplomatic skills. And those are the infuriatingly common cases where everyone is doing their best, but their best just isn’t good enough.

If companies were subject to the level of scrutiny that has been applied to this case, very few would come out this well.

There things we can do. But that’s a story for another day. Right now, my heart bleeds for Linday Shepherd and for Nathan Rambukkana; neither of them can be blamed for the fact that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They did what they could with what they had, the best they knew how.

Written by

Nick Argall is an organization engineer, structuring activities to help businesses achieve their goals.

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