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Investigation
‘It’s so stressful working in this environment’
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Abstract

Vet Record presents testimonies below from several members of staff (current and former) at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. All have given their stories under the condition that their identities will be protected. The allegations are unproven, and some of them have already been investigated by the school and dismissed. These accounts appear in full here but shortened versions ran in the print issue (17/24 October 2020)

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Former senior academic at school

Before David Argyle became the head of the school, it was a fantastic place to work. There was a very positive workplace culture. I started as a lecturer but was promoted very quickly to senior lecturer and told repeatedly by management that I was a potential team leader. My academic career was successful and I had a strong research record in my subject.

I had been working at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies for around 10 years when things started to go wrong. One day a colleague told me that she had been talking to a hospital manager who said that the university was ‘building a case against me’. Private information that I had shared with the manager had been passed on to this colleague, clearly without my consent. The manager had apparently also told her that I was ‘on a list’ of people that David Argyle wanted to get rid of.

I immediately went to HR – I was very angry and concerned that not only was a case being built against me without my knowledge, but that this information was being circulated among my colleagues. I didn’t get very far with HR but that was when my dealings with David Argyle started.

He called me in for a series of meetings, the first with the head of my department but after this first meeting, just Argyle and I were present. Out of the blue, he started to criticise my work – he said my research was more about quantity than quality and that it was essentially worthless to the university. This was objectively not true – I had developed a very strong reputation for my research, so much so that I was asked to give lectures around the world. He also picked on some negative anonymous feedback I’d received from students and ignored the positive feedback, which vastly outstripped the negative.

My head of department was not supportive – he was a weak character and just wanted a quiet life so kept his head down. He never stood up for me against Argyle.

During our second meeting, things started to feel dangerous. Argyle quoted me as saying quite outrageous things in our first meeting, which I absolutely had not said, and he referred to the ‘minutes’ he had made previously. His minutes did not accord with my own recollection of our discussion. I objected but he just overruled me and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to tell my colleagues because it felt humiliating and shameful – to have been successful and have the tables turned on you was extremely stressful.

In our third meeting, Argyle suggested I take voluntary severance – he offered me some money to leave. I needed time to take legal advice but Argyle kept hassling me to make a decision and set a date for leaving. He set a very short deadline for me to make a decision and get the money. I later found out that the university was handing out non-disclosure agreements right, left and centre.

The matter was dealt with by my lawyer and the university’s HR team. Argyle wanted me to go quickly and to take gardening leave. But I didn’t agree to that, I insisted on working my notice period. We made an agreement that the only people who would know about my reasons for leaving, apart from HR, would be David Argyle and the head of my department. However, I also discovered that this promise was broken and this information, which was confidential, was leaked to colleagues which was again, very upsetting.

My lawyer said I had grounds for unfair dismissal but I didn’t want to go down that long route and further risk my mental health. I worked my notice period and left, without a job to go to. It was a very tough time. Thankfully, in the ensuing years I have turned things around and have found a position which I really enjoy and which has renewed my love of the job.

Looking back, I don’t know why I was on Argyle’s hit list. There was nothing explicit. But I was not scared to voice my opinions and I don’t doff my cap to management if I feel they are making bad decisions. I was also leading the way in my research field and perhaps he didn’t like that. I think Argyle is probably sexist too – if I was male, I don’t think he would have treated me like that.

I do keep in touch with people at the hospital and I’m so glad I left. It’s clear that if your face doesn’t fit and the management don’t like you, for example if you raise your head above the parapet for whatever reason, you will be got rid of. People are scared to complain because they fear for their own jobs, and if they have partners working there, they fear there will be repercussions for them.

My final year at Edinburgh was terrible – my world was blown apart. My work is very important to me and then, at that stage in my career, it meant everything. I feel upset thinking about it now – even many years on.

I see Argyle as the Donald Trump of the vet world – he thinks he can behave in any way he wants

I see Argyle as the Donald Trump of the vet world – he thinks he can behave in any way he wants, even be found out, reported in the national press, and continue to be the head of school. He should be sacked and in my opinion, he is not fit to be the next RCVS president.

I can’t understand why the head of school has had so many complaints about his behaviour and yet nothing has been done about it. Colleagues who work there tell me that the atmosphere is appalling now, and yet it used to be a very happy workplace. He should be ashamed for bringing the university into the national press in such a negative way.

Senior vet in the vet school

Argyle needs to go immediately. We need to start from scratch. The school has a toxic atmosphere and we need a culture of openness. We need a new leader who has empathy.

Prior to Argyle coming here, the vet school management was more collegiate.

Most university faculties recognise that if deans stay too long, they become less democratic because too much power is in their hands for too long a period. Argyle has just been in post for too long. He has appointed a senior management committee that is in general very sycophantic and he has complete say on recruitment and HR matters. His regime is despotic.

About three years ago I became aware of the extent of bullying across the vet school. One clinician who was an expert in a specialised field was called to Argyle’s office. He accused her of ‘defrauding’ the university. She worked part-time on clinics which meant, when she was not there, the hospital had to refer specialised work elsewhere and he didn’t like paying for that. He said she needed to perform all of this specialised work. She left his office very distressed and became ill. To this day she is still quite traumatised by the way he treated her.

A pattern of claims of bullying was present, especially to female vets

A pattern of bullying behaviour was present all along, especially to female vets. Argyle treated one pregnant vet very badly, calling her into his office and accusing her of abusing her colleagues by not working over Christmas. She had fully negotiated her leave with her line manager but that didn’t matter. He told her she was ‘swinging the lead’. And when she told him she felt bullied by him, he forced her to withdraw that ‘serious allegation’ and she left his office crying.

He has screamed at staff in front of students. Another time he criticised a whole department for going feral – for not abiding by his will (they did not select an appointee of his choice for a position). Very high numbers of small animal hospital staff have been paid off and made to go and made to sign non-disclosure agreements.

A grievance was filed about Argyle and his treatment of three members of staff in 2018. A university investigation concluded there was no need to take action – it put down the problems to personality clashes. That decision was ludicrous and the cases went to appeal but, again, they lost. Argyle brought in senior managers to tell the panel how good he was and he accused a whole department of underperforming, which was untrue.

The University College Union (UCU) (especially Kevin McNichol) have supported the vet school staff greatly and forced the university to commission an independent report by Intersol. This report gives the views of 21 staff – many of them are very senior, at professor level – and the summary report released to participating staff is damaging. The full report has never been released but that is, apparently, even more damaging. UCU also believes a management change is needed at the vet school.

Many current and ex members of staff in the small animal hospital complained to the head of college Moira Whyte about being bullied. Complaints to her have detailed the claims of suffering of pregnant women, injured and sick vets at the hands of Argyle and another senior manager over many years but she or HR have not even responded to these complainants . It appears that there has been and continues to be a massive cover up. I believe Moira Whyte is derelict in her duty in not managing this bullying culture correctly and the many staff who complained to her without response hold her accountable

The national student survey (NSS) is the holy grail at all universities especially Edinburgh, and so long as the vet school gets good results for that, the university seems determined to hang on to Argyle. Edinburgh vet school does rank highly because teaching is managed well – the staff and clinicians on the ground who do the actual teaching are very good teachers and there are some very good teaching structures much put in put in place by Susan Rhind. And it also puts on lots of activities and entertainment for students so they are generally happy, but getting good NSS results should not be at the expense of brutalising staff.

Argyle has cultivated very strong relationships within the RCVS but he must absolutely not become the next president. He is totally the wrong person. The RCVS is about setting standards and behaviour for the profession and there is surely no possibility that he should get that now after the revelations of the Intersol report. We have full faith that once RCVS council hear these testimonies, they will not support his presidency.

Many vets have suffered mental health problems after dealing with Argyle – some have even been suicidal. He thinks of himself as grand, as a ‘king’, as a world leader. Yes, he runs an efficient administration but there is nothing else that is positive about his leadership. If you disagree with him he marks you for life – he sees enemies as traitors.

Former senior academic

Now I no longer work at the vet school, I am much happier. The culture there is toxic. There are some amazing people who work there – good professionals – but their morale is low. If you are favoured by Argyle, you get better treatment.

I worked at Edinburgh university for more than 10 years. I completed my residency there, became a senior lecturer and European specialist.

I have heard several first-hand accounts of vets receiving bullying treatment, accused of doing something wrong out of the blue, even when they are pregnant or ill. At the beginning of my case, one vet told me ‘they have made my life hell’. He was seriously ill and a few months later he died.

I was at a meeting of around 200 people and he accused all the vets of being feral, of needing discipline. It was unbelievable. If you stand up to Argyle, he doesn’t like you. The turnover in staff is also high – towards the end of my time there, the university lost six surgeons in three months!

He told me: ‘I pay your salary. Shut up, shut up and listen to me’

In all the time I worked there, I only spoke to Argyle twice. The first time was a brief corridor conversation about some courses I was planning to do. The second time, I was called into his office and began to shout at me. He told me: ‘I pay your salary. Shut up, shut up and listen to me’.

Many people would recognise Argyle as a bully. I can’t explain his behaviour – maybe he was bullied as a kid or maybe he’s a psychopath but whatever, he’s been too long in power. It should be just four years as head of school and he’s now been in post for around 10 years.

I blame Moira Whyte and the principal. The university says it has conducted an investigation but it has just covered up the problems. The university leadership is only interested in its research profile and producing students.

It is unbelievable that Argyle is going to be RCVS president – that’s a scary idea. It is a prestigious organisation; you can’t have him as president. Surely we can’t be telling our kids to stand up to bullies yet at the same time allow a bully to lead our regulator. That would be horrendous. What kind of leader do we want? We want someone hard working, close to vets, who cares about the profession. Someone who understands us. We can’t allow him to be president – he is not suitable.

Academic at the vet school

I have worked at the vet school for over 10 years. In 2015, a focus group study was conducted across the staff to gather evidence of barriers to promotion. The report found evidence of a bullying culture across the school and identified a number of themes. It found evidence that some people were being discriminated against – there was evidence of sexual discrimination – females were discounted for promotion, for example. There was also evidence that you couldn’t challenge Argyle – if you crossed him, you’d regret it or you’d be ‘pushed off the bus’ – that was a term that was openly used.

If you were in David’s gang, you’d get a promotion

If you were in David’s gang you are looked after , you are well looked after , you’d get promotion. If you were on his radar, he’d ‘push you off the bus’. There is just a lot of unfairness in the way people are treated. Two people can practice in the same way but one of them can be hauled over the coals.

I was hopeful that it would make a difference but possibly the most damning thing was that the report went to senior management and nothing was done. It saw the report but, because the results clashed with the staff survey, they dismissed the findings. The staff survey was done annually but it was poorly worded and there was no guarantee of anonymity so people didn’t trust it.

I have only survived by keeping out of the way. I’ve taken maternity leave and was overlooked for promotion. I can stomach that because I’m not that ambitious, but if you are ambitious you have no choice but to leave in order to move up.

Senior academic at the vet school

When he first arrived at the vet school, he seemed OK and we got on quite well. He was a bit full of himself and he is very keen on giving advice. I also noticed he could be quite patronising, even to staff who have achieved a similar or higher academic level /research value.

Over time I began to see that Argyle as an emperor with no clothes with a nasty side. He thinks of himself as important and has a tendency to talk about how wonderful he is – he says things like ‘heavy is the head who wears the crown’ in meetings. He decides that you are either on his ship or not and, if you are not, he’ll set out to destroy your career. He actually says things like: ‘I will find you, I will destroy you’.

I would not be speaking out if it was just about me but I am at my wit’s end because I’m seeing so many good people being thrown under the bus. People have said to me ‘every time I think of David Argyle, I feel physically sick’. Men and woman have had to go into therapy because of him and the way he has tried to take their career apart.

Argyle is very bright and can be funny and quick witted but he likes to make nasty jokes and he can put on emotion and appear to be upset when required. He is very charming and is a great networker so he tends to single out people who can be useful and charm them.

He decides if he likes you and, if he does, you get the royal treatment, but if he doesn’t, he can make your working life very difficult. He is brilliant at digging out little dirty secrets and will make it clear he knows. He can’t bear to be challenged. The minute you challenge him, he’ll kick you off the bus.

But his behaviour can be unprofessional – I mean he gets angry with you, shouts and screams at people at work, and he can be vicious with you. He will then later deny it and blame you.

He can make a decision, agree things and go back on it, blaming the other person.

The churn at the school is terrible – particularly in oncology because no one wants to work with him. The school has lost 21 female senior lecturers in 10 years. There are now only five professors left at the university vet school who are senior to Argyle.

I have not escaped bad treatment. There have been occasions when he has torn me in parts. He does all the usual stuff, he undermines you. He relies on no-one challenging that behaviour.

Intersol officers told us the degree of nepotism reminded them of the Metroplitan Police circa 1970

I was one of 21 staff to put in a complaint against him. Our union was so appalled at what we had been experiencing and when Intersol (the external investigators) carried out its investigation, its officers told us the degree of nepotism reminded them of the Metroplitan Police circa 1970.

The university is doing everything it can to stop the details of this coming out, even inviting staff to comment on how good a person they think David Argyle is. It has received complaints about Argyle for six or seven years and have sat on them. They have done nothing. They have ignored it and ignored it and the longer it has gone on, the less likely people have been to complain. They have felt they just wouldn’t get anywhere. Argyle also makes a point of saying ‘veterinary is a small profession. I will find you; I will destroy you’.

After the previous head Elaine Watson left, Argyle used to put up a picture of her on a broom and referred to her explicitly as a witch – this would be in open, monthly school meetings. He had interviewed for the deputy head but didn’t get it – so when he became head he was keen to assert himself.

He began to treat me appallingly. I ran a service and was part of the management structure of the university, chairing committees etc. I became ill and when I went back to work, I found he had stripped me of all that work. He took the chance to kick me when I was down.

I subsequently heard that he told someone that he hated me. And once he decides you are not in favour, he can’t go back. I was told he couldn’t bear to see my face and name in the journals.

There is a new referral hospital opening up just outside Edinburgh – The Livingstone – and it encourages clinicians to do research. It is cleaning up – it has taken so many of our best people – brilliant clinicians.

Academic at the vet school

I was concerned about my treatment by David Argyle, so I wrote to Moira Whyte. She sent me an acknowledgement and thanked me. That was two years ago and nothing has happened since to follow it up. That pretty much sums up the problems at the vet school.

When I wrote to Whyte, I had been working at the vet school for over 10 years. I had only spoken to Argyle twice in his capacity as head of school but both times I was summoned to his office. On both issues, he was interfering with arrangements that had already been agreed between me and my line manager – the first time, concerning parental leave and the second time, regarding my forthcoming maternity leave.

It was a very stressful time being heavily pregnant and having to defend myself and fight for what I thought was entirely appropriate given the government legislation and university guidelines on pregnant workers and maternity leave.

Argyle has what I’d describe as a narcissistic style of leadership which I guess is unlikely to change

I did feel bullied but at the time decided not to take the matter any further because I didn’t want the situation to escalate. It’s not worth the hassle/stress. Argyle has what I’d describe as a narcissistic style of leadership which I guess is unlikely to change. I just keep my head down, hopefully stay under his radar and enjoy my clinical job and am happy to keep it that way.

A longstanding member of staff at the vet school

I’ve worked at the vet school for many years and have seen a lot of coming and going of staff. To be honest, there has always been a lot of bullying here – even before David Argyle started. It’s always operated as an ‘old boys’ club and ‘if your face fits’.

However, now colleagues are leaving at an unbelievable rate. I’m not just talking about vets – we’ve lost our head nurse, the deputy head nurse went and another senior nurse left and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve just written down all the staff who have left in recent years as a direct result of being pushed out their jobs or life made very difficult at work for them. I can count 22 vets and 12 nurses – and that’s off the top of my head. There is always a turn around in the vet school of vets and nurses leaving but in all the years I have been here, I’ve seen nothing like it and majority left due to bullying or their life has been made very difficult they felt they had no choice but to leave. Just this year, four senior surgeons left. The ECC emergency care lead left.

The vet school is rife with nepotism. Spouses get jobs and then get promoted very quickly. If you question it, you are slammed. Bullying is commonplace and people are so scared to say anything. My colleagues and I try to help and support one another, we talk about things and show support to others who are barely coping as no-one is listening to them and their concerns from above .

The way it works is that you are either seen as ‘with them’ or ‘against them’. If you are not with management, and agree with them , you become a target or labelled a troublemaker. HR is not impartial so you can’t rely on them at all – they just operate on the side of management. I have witnessed this first hand.

There were so many complaints made about the bullying culture, which is rife throughout the vet school, that the union recently looked into this issue. An external investigation was conducted and at least 25–30 people came forward to complain and say their concerns regarding the bullying and the toxic atmosphere at the school. Interviews had to be done outside away from the vet school as people were too scared to come forward on site due to possible repercussions if they were seen.

It’s very sad to see this happening in the vet school

It’s very sad to see this happening in the vet school, it’s so difficult and stressful working in this environment. That’s the real reason why the majority of people are leaving. Even when they leave they are very reluctant to speak up in case their career suffers.

David Argyle says there are a couple of people with a grudge or vendetta against him. The man is deluded and unfortunately he is getting protected from above. Twenty-five to thirty people can’t all be wrong – and that’s not including colleagues who left a while ago. Sadly he is not the only bully in the vet school. Others have also been bullying and intimidating vets and nurses.

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