Max-Planck-Gesellschaft publishes survey on work culture and work atmosphere

The findings show that the principles of scientific action must be complemented by the principles of cooperation

In February 2019, the President of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Martin Stratmann, commissioned a science-based Max-Planck-wide survey on working culture and working atmosphere. The findings are now in. “We wanted to get an idea of the mood across the whole organization and create transparency for cooperation and leadership culture at the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft,” Martin Stratmann explains. “The results show how important it is to continue to build a performance-oriented but also a respectful and appreciative working culture and atmosphere at our Institutes and to introduce measures for changes at the relevant locations.”

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The study was implemented by a research team from the Fraunhofer Institute for Work Organization headed by Prof. Dr. Martina Schraudner. More than 9,000 employees of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, which represents 38 percent of the entire workforce, took part in the survey. The study is unique in this form, because for the first time, the questionnaires was not only sent to doctoral candidates and postdocs, but also to all scientific and non-scientific staff. The topic of bullying was also investigated, after public reports in 2018 had referred to allegations at two Max Planck Institutes.

The findings at a glance

The uniqueness of the data set provides a benchmark in the generally poorly researched environment of the work conditions in cutting-edge research.

  • The staff members of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft demonstrate a high level of commitment to the organization, i.e. they are willing to display a high degree of individual commitment and within their respective work unitsare bound by a strong shared vision and collegiality.
  • About 80 percent of the respondents say that individuals with leadership functions have a high employee focus and are willing to support a dynamic change culture. This is particular the case for scientific staff members. Non-scientific staff view the change culture slightly more critical. In particular, they are less likely to confirm that they feel respected by their superiors.
  • In the last 12 months, around 10 percent of respondents stated that they had experienced bullying at the workplace based on their own understanding. This is an average result compared to recent international studies. During the same period, 3.9 percent of all respondents stated that they had at least occasionally experienced sexual discrimination, which is below average compared internationally. The current report by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, for example, states a value of 20 percent in this area.
  • Deficits are identified in relation to mentoring by direct superiors. Women in particular feel that they receive less support in their careers. Among the main target groups of mentoring, doctoral candidates and postdocs, only every other respondent agreed with the statements in the survey regarding career development support.

Performance pressure and bullying

  • Based on their own estimates, non-scientific staff (11.8%) were subjected to bullying significantly more often during the 12 months of the survey than scientific staff (7.5%);
  • Every third employee, regardless of whether from the scientific or non-scientific area, feels they suffer from unmanageable workloads and unreasonable deadlines.
  • 28.1 percent of German scientists know the feeling of being ignored or excluded; among nationals from other EU countries, however, this is the case for nearly half of respondents, and among those from a non-EU country, for nearly every third.
  • Nearly every fifth employee was the target of spontaneous annoyance during the last twelve months, which was partially also expressed loudly.

Work-life balance

  • More than a third of employees stated that their private life suffers due to their work at least a couple of times a month. Women generally did not give different responses to men; and work-life balance conflicts lose importance with increasing age.
  • The majority of employees at the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft who have children felt that they were supported by their institution during their own or their partner’s pregnancy. Women in particular state, however, that they suffered career disadvantages due to their pregnancy (10.9 percentage points), their children or their parental leave (13.7 and 13.1 percentage points).

Sexual discrimination

  • 3.9 percent of all respondents stated that they had felt sexually harassed or discriminated by colleagues or superiors at the workplace at least occasionally during the 12 months prior to the survey. Women are affected by sexual discrimination three times more frequently than men.
  • In the 12 months before the survey, every third female employee of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft experienced unequal treatment because of their gender – three times more often than male employees. Staff working at the level of scientific leaders i.e. Directors or Group Leaders, stated most frequently at 26.3 percent that they had been treated differently because of their gender.

Advancing cultural change

The results of the survey form the basis for initiating measures for required change processes. “The principles of scientific action must be supplemented by the principles of cooperation”, says the President. Based on the Code of Conduct adopted by the Max Planck Society’s Senate which is valid for all members of the Max Planck Society, a cultural change should be advanced to integrate non-German employees better than before, ensure greater transparency in leadership and decision-making processes, lead to a greater compatibility between work and career, prevent bullying and sexual discrimination, and generally combine the overall motivation of a leading scientific organization with a positive leadership culture.

To accompany this process, the President further established an internal task force led by Wieland Huttner, Emeritus Director at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, which prepared and assisted with the survey project. The task force together with the Fraunhofer research team will develop further recommendations for actions and measures until the autumn, based particularly on a target-group-specific evaluation.

The training and development programmes are to be expanded: this particularly includes mentoring measures at all work levels as well as training and coaching for all staff with leadership functions.The Personnel Development and Opportunities Department founded in 2018 has already set up different measures under the auspices of the so-called Planck Academy, which will now be applied more widely. An integral part will be a holistic culture of welcome as well as more consistent, extensive efforts at integration of the non-German employees, in particular. “Communicating our commitment to respectful, attentive mutual treatment must be a central objective of our onboarding,” the President emphasizes.

A central focus is also establishing rules on how to handle non-scientific misconduct and on developing a leadership Code of Conduct. “We have a zero-tolerance policy on bullying and sexual harassment,” Martin Stratmann emphasizes. A Code of Conduct to protect against sexual discrimination/harassment has been in place since the start of 2018. It is also planned that the draft agreement on bullying is to become a General Works Agreement.

The prerequisite is an optimization of internal reporting channels, which – as the study has shown – are currently only accepted to a limited extent by employees. Last year, the Max Planck Society therefore already implemented a reporting channel via a law firm to ensure confidentiality and extended it to the entire organization. In order to ensure procedural security for all parties involved when non-scientific misconduct is reported, a new position has been created in the Administrative Headquarters for a Head of Investigation to whom all MPG employees can turn.

It remains a challenge to meet the justified desire for more dual career offers and childcare: “In these areas, we depend on political support and on commitment in institutional networks,” Martin Stratmann says and points out that many scientists from the UK, Switzerland and France are used to all-day school systems and face significant childcare challenges when they move to Germany. Therefore, the focus of the new Personnel Development Department will be on offering more intensive support to the Institutes through the establishment of the Family Office in order to promote greater on-site relief for employees with children and innovative solutions for a better work-life balance.

Carrying out the study

In order to guarantee the neutrality, data protection and especially the scientific quality of the project, a research team was set up at the Center for Responsible Research and Innovation at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO (CeRRI) under the direction of Prof. Dr. Martina Schraudner. The survey’s sample size is the largest, in absolute terms, of any investigation of a single scientific organization.

The survey is highly representative because the sample size makes up a very good proportion of the total. “Compared to researched studies, a globally unique data set regarding sample size, details and thematic scope was collected on work conditions in cutting-edge research,” Martina Schraudner emphasizes.

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