Social safety

On paper, a lot is already being done to combat inappropriate behaviour. But in practice, these measures often fall short. That is why the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) has issued the advisory report Social safety in Dutch academia: From paper to practice. The report is designed as a guide to enhance social safety in academia.

What is social safety?

Social safety is about improving social behaviour. A socially safe workplace is an environment where people treat each other with respect, and where measures are taken against transgressive and inappropriate behaviour. Examples of inappropriate behaviour include bullying, aggression, violence, discrimination, racism and sexual harassment.

Social safety is a prerequisite for good research. Only through an integrated approach to culture, structures and systems can inappropriate behaviour be prevented. This will only succeed if all employees are included in each step of the change process, while constantly making adjustments along the way.

The advisory report Social safety in Dutch academia discusses five key points with regard to social safety:

  • Basic principles
  • Organizational structure
  • Workplace culture
  • System
  • Future

Basic principles

Social safety is a prerequisite for good research and teaching. In practice, unsafe situations are still very common, and they can have a major impact on everyone involved. This is why we need a cultural change. This requires:

  • An integrated approach: a cultural change that is anchored in structures and systems.
  • Attention to the process: change can only happen through dialogue, step by step, while constantly making adjustments along the way.

A socially safe environment improves employees’ wellbeing and job satisfaction. It also improves the quality of their academic output.

Organizational structure

The way an organization is structured can put pressure on social safety, for instance as a result of work pressure, power imbalances and organizational complexity. This can be counteracted by:

  • Improving collaborative relationships.
  • Making employee wellbeing a key assessment criterion in the selection and development of managers.
  • Developing a comprehensive and detailed structure for social hygiene.

Workplace culture

Behaviour is not a common topic of conversation. Often, people simply do not have the tools they need to discuss behaviour. Talking to each other about desirable behaviour creates a better culture and can prevent many problems, for example by defining workable ground rules for cooperation.


Every organization must ensure a safe working environment. Currently, inappropriate behaviour is often handled on a case-by-case basis. As a result, problems get bigger and people lose trust. A systematic approach focused on prevention and timely intervention would ensure support and care for everyone.


The advisory report Social safety in Dutch academia is a first step towards improving social safety at work. The solutions it proposes now have to be implemented in practice and adjusted if necessary. 

Advisory Committee’s advice and recommendations 

The Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education and Research welcomes the analyses and recommendations presented in Social safety in Dutch academia.

It is now up to the academic community to take action. To support this, the Advisory Committee has made a number of additional recommendations. These focus on: 

  • Monitoring and enforcement. 
  • Phasing out hierarchy and dependency. 
  • Raising awareness of power and privilege. 
  • An inclusive approach that takes account of employees and students.

Read the publication Recommendations following the report Social safety in Dutch academia. See also: Social safety in Dutch academia.