“Abuse within an organization is everyone's business”
Emmanuel Noyer joined EPFL on 1 May 2023 as Respect Compliance Officer, with responsibility for handling complaints of harassment, violence and discrimination. His experience at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) means he’s fully prepared to take on this new role.
Emmanuel Noyer is no stranger to conflict, or to conflict resolution. His new role as EPFL’s Respect Compliance Officer – an important position created at the behest of the School’s Harassment Task Force – is to ensure that complaints of sexual harassment, mobbing, discrimination and, more generally, any conduct harmful to physical or mental health or dignity are handled in an efficient, professional manner.
Noyer’s appointment rounds off the Trust and Support Network, a multi-level structure created by the Task Force a year ago with a view to bringing all of the School’s help and support services under a single umbrella. His new position coincides with two changes to EPFL’s guidelines, both of which will take effect on 1 June: a new directive on psychosocial risks (Lex 1.8.3), which sets out the School’s support and complaint-handling procedures; and updates to the whistleblowing directive (Lex 1.8.1), which describes the procedure for reporting serious misconduct within or relating to the School.
A proven track record
Noyer grew up in the Pyrenees, in a family of lawyers, and specialized in humanitarian law. He joined EPFL after more than 20 years at MSF, where he was most recently head of human resources at its Geneva headquarters. In this role he developed a system for managing abuse and interpersonal conflict in the field. He previously held emergency-response positions and spent several years working in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, North and South Sudan, Congo, DRC, Liberia, Ukraine and Timor-Leste.
“MSF works in some of the world’s most corrupt countries, where violence is an everyday occurrence,” he says. “To begin with, we were somewhat blind to it. But violence doesn’t stop at the clinic or hospital door. And like other organizations, we were caught up in the #MeToo movement, which opened the floodgates and got people talking about these issues.” As a result, Noyer was allocated a substantial budget to set up a new unit to address prevention, awareness, case detection, case management, and data collection and analysis.
“People with specialized skills in this area are few and far between,” he explains. “We had to train ourselves and create our own rules and procedures. There are no practical solutions in law to these kinds of issues. Imagine there are death threats between two employees, where one is an expat and the other is a national. Whose country’s law applies? And when it comes to sexual abuse cases, the local authorities aren’t going to help us. Many women risk reprisals if they admit to being sexually assaulted.”
These cultural differences meant Noyer’s unit had to think creatively: they designed brand-new prevention programs in hundreds of languages, often addressed to illiterate audiences for whom these issues are taboo. The unit also had to train managers on how to handle complaints without undermining employee confidence, design new case management processes, develop appropriate risk assessment methods, and introduce internal and external reporting systems.
“One problem with setting up this kind of unit is that the rest of the organization thinks it no longer needs to worry about these issues,” says Noyer. “It creates the impression that we’ve ‘checked the box’ when it comes to tackling abuse. But abuse in an organization is everyone’s business – from senior managers through to the most vulnerable employees.”
In January, just before Noyer left MSF, he saw one of his final projects come to fruition: an online case reporting and management system that, once again, required a customized response.
Common ground between MSF and EPFL
What prompted Noyer to swap the frenetic pace of life at MSF for a role at EPFL? “I wanted to apply my knowledge and expertise in a large institution,” he says. “And in fact, EPFL shares a lot of common ground with MSF. I think I have something to contribute. And there’s the excitement that comes with discovering a new world. I like to take pride in my employer. During the hiring process, I got the sense that EPFL was the right place for me.”
I like to take pride in my employer. During the hiring process, I got the sense that EPFL was the right place for me.
He goes on to explain the characteristics that EPFL and MSF share: “Stress, pressure, deadlines, organizational complexity, and many different categories of employees. Plus there’s the fact that both have created a new position to address these issues. I’m looking forward to learning about EPFL’s history and academic culture. And I fully expect to encounter complicated situations here, too. At MSF, medical staff are hired to save lives, not for their management skills. It’s kind of the same with faculty members at EPFL. There are plenty of success stories, but also failures, egos to contend with and so on.”
Despite these similarities, Noyer has seen one key difference that puts his new employer at an advantage: “EPFL is one step ahead of MSF when it comes to providing support. With its Trust and Support Network, Person of Trust, and impressive network of associations, there are many more options for de-escalating a situation before it gets to the complaint stage. Some might argue that having multiple entry points muddies the water. But I actually think it’s better, because if there’s only one option and people don’t trust it, they won’t speak up and problems won’t get solved.”
Bringing professional know-how
In his new job, Noyer sees it as his responsibility to review complaints and recommend solutions to the Respect Compliance Office (formerly the Respect Cell), a committee appointed by EPFL’s upper management. “I want to bring my professional skills to this role,” he says. “And I know that abuse is taken seriously here at EPFL. We’re not starting from scratch. It’s more a question of making improvements, clarifying procedures and documenting how things work.”
We’re not starting from scratch. It’s more a question of making improvements, clarifying procedures and documenting how things work.
“Problems are to be expected at a place like EPFL,” adds Noyer. “A university is like a small city. It’s much better to bring issues into the open than to hide them, ignore them, or sweep them under the rug. EPFL can be proud that it takes conduct-related matters so seriously. It can also be proud that upper management is determined to change things for the better and make the School a place where everyone is treated with respect.”
Summing up his thoughts, Noyer adds: “What I learned from my time at MSF is that, when someone makes a compliant, there’s always a problem. It might not be abuse in the strict sense of the term, but I’ve rarely seen cases of people complaining maliciously or for self-protection. Every complaint needs to be handled with compassion, because the person making it is suffering. There are inevitably some cases that don’t fit the mold, so we also have to be flexible. Resolving situations like these is never easy and it’s not the kind of job where you can keep everyone happy. But it’s important to bear in mind that, even if neither the complainant nor the accused is happy with the outcome, there’s always room for improvement.”