You need industrial strength processes to ensure bullies get the boot
Hearing the phrase “a damning report” on the one o’clock news is usually enough to get me to prick up my ears, but when it’s a damning report on a culture of bullying and intimidation in the UK’s House of Commons, I’m definitely interested. It’s not out of some prurient interest in the suffering of workers but because I’m interested in when organisations have a cultural failure and what they do to put it right.
In the case of Parliament, it looks like a massive failure and an insufficient response.
The report by Dame Laura Cox QC into bullying and sexual harassment cases followed an investigation by the BBC’s Newsnight programme into complaints about a number of MPs. Her findings make depressing reading for anyone who likes to think that the “mother of parliaments” might be reflecting the social mores of the 21st Century. Sadly not, as Dame Laura details alleged sexual harassment by MPs with women reporting abuse in “vulgar, gender-related terms” and being “repeatedly propositioned”, along with accounts of “inappropriate touching”.
Others reported regular instances of shouting, swearing, belittling behaviour or staff being routinely overbearing or confrontational towards their colleagues.
Yes, jerks at work are alive and well in the organisation that’s charged with running the country.
Most worrying is the criticism of the decision by a Commons working group to implement a new code of conduct before the inquiry was complete. The complaints procedure this would include was based on a 2014 policy which – clearly from the evidence in the report – was discredited and distrusted.
And this is the key point: in order to root out this kind of behaviour you need credible and robust processes to allow affected staff to complain and have those complaints taken seriously. It isn’t just unpleasant for the recipients of harassment but makes bad business sense, since the “stifling of potential, the blighting of careers and the loss of talented and dedicated employees, many of them women” as the report says, carries an economic cost as well as a psychological one.
The Cox report highlights a massive failure of leadership in the organisation: it takes courage and principles to get rid of toxic members of staff and these are sorely lacking at present. In fact she goes as far to say that the continued presence of some senior leaders – the terms of reference of the report mean they must remain anonymous – means that “Some individuals will want to think very carefully about whether they are the right people to press the reset button and to do what is required to deliver that change in the best interests of the house”.
Leaving individuals to think doesn’t sound like an industrial strength process, but it’s a start.
When there is evidence of widespread assholery in another organisation it’s tempting to point the finger and feel a sense of moral superiority – criticising politicians is a close to a national sport in most countries and the UK is no exception – but we should also ask ourselves how much bad behaviour we tacitly accept in our own workplaces.
If you’re not part of the solution – i.e. actively working to ensure all forms of harassment are dealt with root and branch – then you’re definitely part of the problem.