Less than one out of three employees at the EPO are satisfied with their working life, according to a survey on psychosocial risks which was carried out for the Staff Union of the EPO. 66% of the respondents in the survey said their working conditions have deteriorated over the last 3 years, and 63% perceive a negative impact of work on their health.

According to the results of the survey, carried out by the French group Technologia, the situation at the EPO is deteriorating for various reasons, partly depending on the site, Job Group or Directorate General, but the lack of time is increasingly mentioned. 72% of respondents mentioned this as, against 43% in the 2016 edition of the survey. Other factors are decisions of management (83%), poor atmosphere (58%), lack of consideration (51%), difficulty of the work (16%), ergonomics of the workplace (12%).

“As a result, the quality of the work is greatly affected. The impossibility of carrying out one’s tasks and doing quality work also impacts on the health of employees, particularly in terms of psychological distress”, according to a summary of the results.

Some other responses to the survey:

  • “I consider that the roadmap defined by the ‘Strategic Plan 2023’ is important and necessary for the future of the EPO”: 44% totally or tends to disagree, 36% is neutral, 19% tends to or totally agrees.
  • “I consider the following measures important and necessary for the future of the EPO”: Giving more time to staff to provide quality work 88%, Moving from an HR policy based on production pressure and fear for punishment to an HR policy that focuses… 84%, Making the new career (allocation of “rewards”) fairer and more transparent (74%), Improving IT tools (73%).
  • “The information I receive from Staff Representation is relevant for my work and to me personally”: 48% tends to agree, 29% totally agrees.
  • “Do you consider that the introduction of a performance-related bonus at the level of the individual employee is a good thing for the quality of the work produced by the European Patent Office?”: 68% totally disagrees, 25% tends to disagree, 8% tends to or totally agrees.
  • “I would recommend the EPO as an employer to a friend”: 35% totally disagrees, 31% tends to disagree, 21% is neutral, 11% tends to agree, 2% totally agrees.

In several responses it becomes clear that the harshest confrontations and deepest divisions between management and staff, from the period of former EPO president Benoît Battistelli, have decreased. In the 2016 version of the Technologia survey, 68% of respondents disagreed they totally disagreed and 22% tended to disagree (together 90%!) with the statement “I support the strategy of the EPO set out by top management”. In 2020, these numbers are 35% and 32%. Still, only 9% tended to or totally agreed in 2020. The results below show that, also under the leadership of EPO president António Campinos, the relations are still far from healthy.

  • “The actions of the EPO’s top management show that they are fully aware of the strategic importance of employees’ skills (…)”: 42% totally disagrees (65% in 2016), 36% tends to disagree (25%).
  • “Our current top management has shown that they are interested in an honest and constructive dialogue with the staff representation about important issues that concern staff”: 44% totally disagrees (90% in 2016), 33% tends to disagree (9%), 15% is neutral (1%), 8% tends to agree (0%) and 1% totally agrees (0%).
  • “In my view, the actions of top management and the strategy adopted have departed considerably from the role that the EPO should be playing in the European patent system”: 31% tends to agree (22% in 2016), 34% totally agrees (49%).

Some responses to questions about workload, moreover, were more negative in 2020 than in 2016:

  • “I am required to work very fast”: 36% tends to agree (43% in 2016), 57% totally agrees (47%).
  • “My workload is excessive”: 36% tends to agree (37% in 2016), 42% totally agrees (31%).

The survey was carried out in February and March 2020. “Of the Office’s 6.545 staff members, 3.124 were invited to answer the questionnaire, and 1,759 participated. The participation rate is therefore 56.3% of those invited, and 26.9% of EPO staff.” SUEPO wasn’t allowed to use the epo mail addresses of staff members for the survey, so it had to gather private mail addresses.

The questions of the survey were almost identical to those in 2010, 2013 and 2016 editions. According to the report, “the participation rate was negatively impacted by the period of the Covid 19 health crisis in Europe and the lockdown periods implemented in various countries.” According to SUEPO, it sent the survey to EPO president Campinos and the Administrative Council, but there was no reaction. In answer to a query by Kluwer IP Law, an EPO spokesman said the EPO didn’t wish to comment on the survey.

When António Campinos took office over two years ago, it was hoped he would normalize social relations at the EPO after the Battistelli years. The survey shows that is not the case, and in the last months there have been signs of rising tensions. Last December, for the first time under the presidency of Campinos, a strike was held. The SUEPO wrote to its members it would be the start of a year of social conflict.


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10 comments

  1. Thanks to Kluwer Patent Blogger for raising the attention of the profession to the situation at the EPO.

    Dear professional, do not think that the situation at the EPO is none of your business. The general atmosphere has a direct influence on the work carried out by examiners and hence the quality of the “products” delivered.

    The management of EPO is thinking in “plans”, especially when it comes to the number of “products” to be delivered. The rationale is always more and in less time, and if you do not reach your target, it is you to blame. Should persist in this deviant attitude you will get fired before you realised it. On the other hands we all know where planned economies have led to…..

    Anything is done to crush people and bring in a deleterious atmosphere. The newly recruited examiners are only receiving 5 years contracts. What a marvellous tool to hinder any attempt to oppose management views. As an appointment for life is only achievable after 10 years of good conduct, this is also a strong deterrent for people having some professional experience to come to the EPO, unless they have personal reasons to move to Munich, The Hague or Berlin.

    When two third of staff members say that they would not recommend a friend to take a job at the EPO alarm bells should be ringing loud at management level, but no it prefers not to comment the study. Is it possible to be so blind?

    If the management of the EPO would not be afraid of the result why would it refuse to allow Technologia to use the EPO mail addresses? By the way the official surveys carried by the EPO management show a similar trend, but the figures are presented in such a way that the AC is not in a position to apprehend reality.

    And this survey took place when the pandemic had not yet burst out. How is to possible to create a feeling of community when everybody is sitting most of the time in home office, even if this might be in one’s home country. And that the fact that deciding bodies of the EPO can be scattered around Europe is in flagrant contradiction with one of the latest decisions of the EBA.

    In G 2719, the EBA held that “The users of the services of the European Patent Organisation are entitled to rely on the fact that the bodies of the European Patent Office do not carry out their actions in arbitrary third locations.” See the last § of Point 2. of the reasons”. But it the will of the head of the EPO and

    I fear that the result of the next survey will be even more catastrophic. The hopes put in the new head of the EPO upon its arrival have been thoroughly disappointed. He might not be as arrogant as its predecessor, but certainly not different in its dealings with staff. Squeezing out the fruit and lowering wages continues.

    One thing is clear, had people like him and its predecessor been had the helm of the EPO when it opened, it would never have become the success story it has been for many years. I fear this success story is coming to an end.

  2. These are some of the best paid jobs in the world and payment is virtually free of any deductions or taxes. Some examiners earn more than the German chancelor, just to give you a comparison. Now, which job is more stresfull? For these sums, I think we can expect “battle hardned” professionals at the EPO who can deal with a bit of time pressure. Is there any job in the world where people do not wish that they had more time to do their work?

    1. Peter Parker defending the EPO’s management?? Quelle surprise ! You can always bet your right hand that no matter which measures are introduced by EPO management (unlawful dismissal of a BoA member, radical change of the Guidelines, “timeliness” improvement at the expense of quality and especially the worsening of examiner working conditions), these will be always enthusiastically endorsed by Peter Parker. No wonder other commenters consider this one an EPO troll.

      Replying to the substance, none of the examiners at the EPO earn the salary of the German Bundeskanzler. The only ones earning that salary are the middle and upper echelons of management. Please make you responsibilities comparison correctly. And the majority of the examiners are not even close to half that salary. BTW, they are taxed and deducted. And indeed, entry level conditions are so unattractive at the moment that the number of applications for examiner posts is at a historical low point. The only ones applying nowadays are people already living in The Hague and Munich areas and nationals of Southern Europe’s hardest hit economies. But that is beside the point. Examiners are only asking to have more time to do a better job. One would think that something like that would be in the interest of the profession and the public in general.

  3. I am one of those who was already in the patent profession when the EPO opened for business in 1978. It has been for me an uplifting experience, to see Europe’s patent law experts working together to create a Patent Office, a system of administering patentability law and a jurisprudence, an established case law, that is so good that the rest of the world could not improve on it. That’s because it is an inspired fusion of the best of continental civil law (as used in Asia) and English common law (as used in North America). A truly world-wide harmonisation that is unique, as far as I can see, in any field of law or industry. Nowhere else but Europe could create such a masterpiece because nowhere else but Europe pools such diversity..

    And now? I see the custodians of this legacy squandering it carelessly. It is distressing to observe what’s going on, at the level of the Administrative Council and the Office of the President.

  4. @Peter Parker

    Envy is never conducive to a balanced view of the situation, be it at the EPO or anywhere else. To make things clear, the situation has been degrading since 2010 and the degradation is even accelerating.

    The salaries at the EPO are not any longer interesting. A good illustration is that about one third of people receiving an offer decline. The payment is not any longer as rosy as you make out, but for the minions gravitating around the president. Recruiting people with some professional experience has become an illusion.

    A few questions:
    Would you have been ready to leave your home country sever all links with your national security and pension system?
    Would you like it if your employer decides in your place when you can enter an industrial action and even controls the ballot?
    Would you accept from your employer that year after year your production, not productivity, target is increased. In some parts of the EPO there are not even enough files, but the management does not care. It is the staff’s problem. If you do not reach your arbitrary set target you are eventually fired with barely a possibility to defend yourself.
    Would you like to work for an employer which on the one hand says that staff it an asset, but does everything to curtail its rights and lowers salaries and pensions on the basis of fake studies?
    Would like to work for an employer you cannot trust, knowing well that he is constantly preparing another attack on your situation and behaves like an employer of the 19th century?
    Would you like to work for an employer which always takes the most unfavourable interpretation of the staff regulation?
    If the answer to any of those questions is negative, then you are not entitled to give an outright judgement and should rather refrain from commenting.

    Most of the experienced people have left the office as soon as they could, some even accepting a cut on their pension, simply to escape the morbid atmosphere at the EPO. This brain and experience drain has never been compensated for the reasons given above. That some union members have been exaggerating in the past is not a reason to take wrath on all staff. But this is what happened.

    Since 2010 all joint bodies have been misused by management. One example: the central staff committee consists on the administration side of vice-presidents or principal directors, so there is no wonder that they will not agree to any change of what they have already decided in the management committee. And if by chance they would come to a unanimous decision, if it is not to the liking of the chef, it will be ignored.

    The management has curtailed any possibility for people to act collectively in order to defend their working conditions. The five years contracts and the present dematerialisation of the EPO, when its staff is send not only home, but even in its home country is accelerating this trend.

    In older times, the various presidents accepted at least unanimous decisions from joint bodies, be it the central staff committee, the disciplinary committee or the internal appeals committee. Since 2010, the president even ignores their decisions and just does what he wants. In a few cases has even increased sanctions. But “consultation” has taken place.

    The only place where staff can resort eventually in case of a different between a staff member and the management is the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organisation. It might bear the name tribunal, but it satisfies itself to check whether the rules have been applied, and never decides on the correctness of measures.

    There were big hopes when the new president started nearly two years ago and he was meant to restore social peace. Nothing like this has happened and the situation has constantly degraded. And the AC is simply gaping!

    The official maxim is that quality has been improving steadily since 2010 and is still improving. Do not be surprised if the patents so granted are often not worth the paper they are printed on. For big companies it does not matter, but for the so beloved SMEs it can be lethal.

    Take a look at decisions of the BA in opposition, or at national level and you will see how many patents are considered invalid, or are heavily amended. Even if only 5% of the granted patents are opposed, in two thirds of the case they come out maimed from an opposition at the EPO. In most of the cases it is not because of prior art the EPO was not aware at the time of grant. When you extrapolate this figures to the mass of patents granted which is constantly rising according to “the plan” it makes you shudder.

    All the problems above are a direct consequence of the unrest amongst staff provoked by the management. When you see that two third of staff members say that they would not recommend a friend to hire at the EPO, what you are claiming is simply not true and not merely a question of dealing “with a bit of time pressure”. You should simply avoid such derogatory comments.

    Remember also that it is the same management who decides what is good for the users of the EPO. I am not only thinking of OP in form of ViCo, but also to the fact that beside the opposition statement and the proprietor’s reply any other documents will not be forwarded any longer. And the BA are on the same line.

  5. Why employ highly qualified and intelligent staff simply in order to set them to work on tasks that they are permitted to complete only in accordance with very strict guidelines, and with no room for lateral thinking (or, heaven forbid, doubts regarding the validity of the guidelines)?

    It is therefore unsurprising that the staff perceive that they have less and less autonomy to decide how to complete the tasks that they are set. It is obvious that this will have a seriously negative impact upon the staff, as it contributes to a more strained working environment.

    It says a lot that the EPO’s management has not only made it difficult for the latest iteration of the Technologica survey to be completed, but also has clearly not paid attention to red flags raised by previous versions of the survey. This suggests that both the management and the Administrative Council are confident that they will be safe from any potential fall-out from the imposition of employment practices that, were the EPO not an international body, would soon be found to be in breach of the (human) rights of its staff.

    Is this really all that we can expect from the delegations to the Administrative Council? Relying upon privileges and immunities in order to drive up “profits” from an international organisation? Absolutely shameful!

  6. Thanks to Max Drei and Concerned Observer for their comments.

    The scandalous thing here is indeed the passive attitude of the AC. The tail has been wagging the dog for much too long and it is hard to believe that the AC is blindly following the present and the previous presidents of the EPO.

    The Conference of ministers in charge of IP, cf. Art 4a, has never taken place. Why can the AC at least not force the president to abide by this rule? It is adding insult to injury.

    What is also worrying is that the management of the boards is on the same line as the president. The president does not have to worry as he is sure that whatever he decides, a good “dynamic interpretation” by the EBA will give him what he wants.

    The relationship between president and AC reminds me of an old French song “Everything’s fine, Madam Marquise”, the castle is burning and crumbling, but no, everything is OK.

  7. Nowadays for the few to be recruited each year and who are not top managers’ family/friends, they get a five years’ contract. This contract may or may not extended by another five years term at the end of which, they may or not be “permanentised”.

    Of course if such system was designed at the first place, it is precisely to not confirm staff after two contracts and thus for the EPO to save future pension rights which are due after ten years of presence at EPO.

    The aim of time-limited contracts is obviously to keep staff under maximal pressure in the hope of a permanent position which will never come and this during a decade after which the EPO looks for new lemons to squeeze and throw you out like a disposable tissue.

    You can kiss good bye to settling with your family for a stable future abroad which such working conditions. Since the career progression has been destroyed by HR top management five years ago, the professional perspectives are de facto non existent and last but not least, after five years in such bureaucratic environment, the chances to reintegrate the private sector are close to zero.

    This being said, EPO top managers are far too much paid considering their level of competence or record of performance, in particular in HR which is the weak spot of this organisation.

    At EPO staff works despite HR and its top management.

    The results of the new survey iteration, the summary of which can be found here https://suepo.org/documents/47552/61298.pdf and the complete survey here https://suepo.org/documents/47552/61303.pdf

    1. It is certainly worth looking at the full results of the study. There are just so many red flags indicating increased psychological stress amongst EPO staff.

      The EPO management can say what they like about working conditions, but it is how the staff experience those conditions that really matters. On literally every measure, the long term trend is negative, sometimes profoundly so. Yet the AC fiddles whilst Rome burns.

  8. Nonsense Parker writes persuasively. I liken what has happened at the EPO with what has happened to the British National Health Service. In both cases, a real scandal.

    Politicians are in thrall to “the market” and to business “consultants”. These international accountancy firms explain to them that the market is the way to get “value for money”. These consultancy firms are parasites, like the Herpes Simplex virus. They make sure that, once they have wormed their way into an organisation, it becomes impossible for the organisation to rid itself of the parasite because all management systems have become dependent on the parasitical consultancy services firm. Money for old rope, from then on, till the organisation fails and the vampire consultants move on to the next host body.

    Of course, the humans that work for these management consultancies have no appreciation of what it is other than money that drives a public servant (such as a medical doctor or a judge, or a Patent Office Examiner or a Formalities Officer, or an IT support person) towards career excellence, towards trying their hardest, every day. The consultants truly know the price of everything. They really do have no idea at all, it seems to me, of the value of anything. Not my job, I’m sure they would say, to ascribe a “value” to anything. Rather, they would say, Pilate-style, it’s their client (here the Administrative Council) that has to make those decisions.

    Perhaps C19 has some benefit in that it is reminding us all that there are some aspects of the general welfare of a decent human society that politicians and preening managers cannot solve with mere accounting techniques, that these accounting obscenities are damaging rather than nurturing human society.

    The Constitution of the United States of America invokes as a goal the “general welfare” of society. How about that? I just don’t know how to bring our elected politicians around to a more sophisticated view of what nourishes the general welfare of our society here in Europe.

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