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How HR can eradicate a bullying culture

16 Apr 2018 By Rebecca Foreman

With claims of misuse of power in the House of Commons recently splashed across the media, what can HR do to help change a toxic work environment for good?

The BBC’s Newsnight has shone a spotlight on claims of behind-the-scenes bullying by MPs on the ‘clerks’ who run the House of Commons. Sitting on committees as advisers, the clerks are dependent on good working relationships for their career progression, as well as needing to be able to stand up to MPs on procedure.

Rather than professional relationships of mutual respect, the picture portrayed by the media investigation is one of an ugly misuse of power, bullying and sexual harassment. Female clerks are particular victims, according to the report – bullied out of their jobs, their careers turned sour.

There are formal processes in place, as you’d expect, for protecting more junior staff from a bullish use of seniority by MPs. But, it’s said, the staff don’t believe it’s going to help them – quite the opposite. Typically, when a problem is identified the solution is for the clerk to be moved from a committee, interrupting their progress and damaging perceptions of them in the House.

These aren’t standard employee-to-employee relationships. MPs are essentially self-employed, more like powerful clients or sub-contractors – so, as an employer, it’s even more difficult for the House to enforce policies on behaviour. As organisations become more complex, involving more gigging staff, networks of associates and partnerships, this type of situation will become more common.

What’s needed in any organisation, where there is always a degree of hierarchy, of assumed and innate levels of power, is trust in processes. There has to be belief in a level of independence beyond organisational politics, an adherence to what is reasonable and fair. On a practical level that means the right people running hearings and panels, otherwise any other work to provide support before this stage is a sham and a waste of resource. Quickly, as policies are followed and evidence of justice is clear, the culture will change.

The first step will be professional training of a range of people to work on the hearings. Fair processes are undermined by an assumption that senior people always know best – that they know the people, the politics, the truth under the surface. As a result, judgements on situations are made too early, based on assumptions and without making the necessary effort to gather all the evidence, leading to conflicts with participants, poor decisions and that erosion of trust. Senior management may have the credibility but they still need training, new skills and impartiality. 

It’s not enough for the House to proclaim a zero-tolerance position on bullying. All it does is raise the stakes, making it harder for employees to speak out, and bullies to work harder at staying under the radar. Employees who believe they’re being bullied keep it to themselves because they can’t see or imagine a positive resolution – it involves too much potential for blame on both sides.

Organisations need to open up, encourage honesty and more conversations that deal with root issues of inequality – not secrecy accompanied by shocks of conflict and revelation.

And that means having the conversational intelligence and processes that can change the day-to-day working culture.

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