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Associate professor: There must be a more humane way to fire people

All staff at the Faculty of Social Sciences were asked recently to be ready at their desks for a certain period of time to find out whether they had been fired, or not. But why actually, when management has already decided in advance who is to be fired? This is what Mikael Carleheden, an associate professor of sociology, wants to know.

I have been employed as an associate professor at the Department of Sociology since 2009. Throughout this period, I have lived in Sweden, and gone over the bridge to my work in Copenhagen. As a cross-border worker, you are a bit in-between. And science is, after all, international. My knowledge of Danish politics and culture is limited. But now I have experienced the very unpleasant dismissals procedure, which is apparently normal at Danish universities.

It is a procedure that I do not recognize in Sweden at all (where I also worked for many years), or from other Nordic countries. When I tell my Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish colleagues about this procedure, they use words like shocking, horrifying and inhumane.

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Even though I find myself in the midst of this, my perspective is from a distance.

I find it very difficult to understand why this dismissal procedure is used at all.

It is, of course, unpleasant, and sometimes also tragic, to be fired. But why should all members of staff at the faculty be exposed to this procedure, when management already knows that only a few specific people will be dismissed? Why have we, for many days prior, already been told that we will be sitting in front of our computers between 9 and 9.15 on Monday waiting to be notified via email? Why should we all be forced to contemplate what we should do with our lives if we are fired? Why should we all endure sleepless nights wondering whether it is me, or my good colleague, who will be given the sack? Why do we all have to go through these fifteen minutes of pain?

In short: Why do Danish academics fire each other using this ritual procedure?

And why can we not know why?

I managed to come through, without getting fired, this time round. I don’t know why. Neither do I know why two of my close colleagues did not manage to come through. We’ll probably never know. We can just wonder. Some of us guess that these two were somehow critical of management.

Social science libraries are full of books and articles on power and the disciplining of workplaces. We social scientists have developed concepts like (post-)fordism, new public management and other things. Now we are being forced to leave our privileged perspective as observers. Now we are affected by the same processes that we have explored and criticised.

Is this not also a case of disciplining? Work harder! Be obedient, not critical! Next time, it may be your turn. Our sense of security in our jobs has taken a hit during this whole process. The feeling is now that anyone can be fired for any reason.

How should creativity and innovation flourish under these uncertain conditions? How can an organisation develop if staff do not dare to express their opinions? How can we attract new staff to universities if they treat them in this undignified manner?

One thing is for certain. I think my Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish colleagues will think again before applying for a position at a Danish university when they hear how academics fire each other at Danish universities.

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