Brussels, 2 October 2020
Note for the attention of Mr Johannes Hahn
Commissioner in charge of des Human Resources and Budget
Suject : COVID-19 health crisis
We would like to begin by thanking you sincerely and personally for your decision, taking due account of the evolution of the pandemic, to postpone the transition to Phase 2 which the administration had previously announced a little hastily.
Thank you for making staff health a top priority
R&D welcomes your choices and thanks you for having, from the start of the pandemic, placed the health of staff as a top priority, favouring the approach of a safe working environment.
From the start of the pandemic, the staff of the institutions, mostly expatriates and often assigned far from their families, have often been prevented from moving freely within the Union, or even in certain cases of force majeure, assigned to quarantine elsewhere than at their place of employment. R&D asks you to keep paying particular attention to these situations, quite far from being deemed exceptional after so many months of health crisis and uncertainty. In this regard, we support with the greatest conviction the approach of the Central Staff Committee aimed at denouncing the profound differences in practices within the services with regard to the respect of instructions on teleworking abroad.
A staff of which our institution should be proud!
Indeed, while the health situation remains very worrying – even deteriorating – in a certain number of countries and regions and in particular in Brussels, the staff of the Institution, and their families, have been showing resilience and great ability to adapt to an uncertain situation.
In carrying out their duties, the staff has also – as on par with our President you have never failed to recognize it – demonstrated flexibility and a remarkable sense of responsibility by immediately acclimatising to the new working methods made essential by the context; this took place without weakening efficiency or motivation, and as a result, the overriding interest of our institution was preserved.
Overnight, the staff adapted and responded to the new requirements, anticipating the Green Deal and the digitalisation of the Institution. In this regard, we would like to salute the professionalism of the technical and IT teams who have managed to swiftly implement the radical changes to our working environment.
R&Dsupports with conviction the reform you advocate towards a new “culture of trust”
As you rightly pointed out, it is now important that management also evolves and moves from a “culture of control” to a “culture of trust”.
However, it is not enough to simply embrace this reform and announce it through frantic communication efforts, currently being deployed within the framework of the exercise aiming at the “modernization” of the human resources policy of our institution.
Staff requests: “facta non verba”
To build and consolidate trust, all these good intentions have to be followed by action, regardless of the Institution, Directorate-General, Agency or Office employing Institutions’ servants.
Unfortunately, we regret to notice that DG HR still does not seem capable of ensuring the essential consistency to the rules implemented by the many services of our institution, in allowing decisions at the most decentralized level because of the supposition that “staff and special situations are better known” at this level.
The result is a diverging application of the instructions in force, which is completely unacceptable when it comes to protecting the health of our colleagues.
Managers up to their missions …
The vast majority of managers have been exemplary in managing this crisis by showing empathy and the utmost concern for their staff thereby building a climate of trust that will forever be remembered.
Others are definitely not …
Others, unfortunately, in the absence of a real mastery at the central level, feel entitled to engage in personal and restrictive interpretations of the instructions in force and unnecessarily make the working conditions even more difficult for colleagues under their responsibility.
The obsession with “face-to-face at all costs”
Excessive zeal going as far as the real permanent policing of teleworkers, pressing invitations to return to the office in anyway, even raising doubts as to the potential consequences on the annual evaluation and promotion exercise, criticisms and the openly displayed disappointment about your decision to delay the transition to phase 2… are all excessive or even offensive behaviours which only increase the already palpable anxiety among our most vulnerable colleagues.
Regarding the return to the office, it is not a question of preventing colleagues who in the greatest respect for the instructions in force wish to do so, but simply of preventing unacceptable pressures, or even outright blackmail, from being exerted on the others who comply with the instructions in force.
The so-called “essential” missions
The same is true for the planning of the so-called “essential” missions that certain services are preparing to impose on colleagues with travels, including in countries heavily affected by the pandemic, currently perceiving from DG HR a relaxation of instructions in this regard.
In this regard, it is not reasonable, as DG HR envisages, to hand over to each line manager the responsibility of evaluating, before sending colleagues on mission, “that the interest of the mission outweighs the risks to the personnel concerned ”, what is even more unacceptable when it comes to sending vulnerable personnel on mission.
While it is normal for each line manager to be called upon to assess the appropriateness of a mission, it is not acceptable that the balance with the health risks of the mission managers is thus decentralized to the lowest level, in the absence of any mastery at the central level and entrusted to colleagues without any competence in the matter in allowing them to assess such risks.
These decisions must be taken with all the more caution as, by invoking the rules imposed very recently by Belgium concerning essential professional activities, colleagues returning from an “essential” mission of less than 48 hours, even in a country in the red zone are not subject to testing or quarantine. Far from being a matter of an allegedly reassuring “ease”, these exemptions are invoked to impose an immediate return to the office and, on the contrary, risk plunging the staff going on mission into a state of fear not only about their health but also concerning the risk that on their return they could infect their family and their colleagues.
Once again, this is not to deny that, in exceptional cases, missions, despite the pandemic, may prove to be essential for our Institution to perform its tasks up to the expectations of our fellow citizens.
It is above all a matter of ensuring very strict and centralized control over the decision to consider a mission as ”essential”, again avoiding any overzealousness and personal interpretation in this regard. And it is not enough to stress that such drifts would constitute an exception in all cases. When it comes to the health of colleagues, even a single abuse is utterly intolerable.
It is important that within our Institution everyone without exception accepts the reform in the management culture based on trust, advocated by yourself and which we support with conviction.
This concerns above all managers who still remain faithful to the painful authoritarian vision of their role based on mistrust, by constantly fuelling a climate of fear.
Faced with the pandemic and with the major uncertainty that remains on the evolution of the situation in the weeks and months to come, the change in culture must, more than ever, be real and the Institution’s duty of care towards its staff must be reflected in reality, in all cases, at all times and within all departments.
In this regard, while being aware of the current strong pressure on the demand for vaccines of this type, we appeal to you so that our Institution sets up, this year, a vaccination campaign against seasonal influenza likely to respond to the request of our colleagues.
Faithful to its mission of always being at the side and at the service of staff, R&D will not fail to bring to your attention any difficulty that our colleagues may report to us.
Ms. G. Ingestad, Director-General of DG HR
M. C. Roques, Director of Directorate HR/D
Mr. E. Sakkers, Head of Unit HR/E.1