Is #Priti #Patel a bully?

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It won’t surprise you that the question in the title is not one I am going to get into.

Firstly, just as I would be reluctant to label a child as a ‘naughty child’ just because they occasionally did something naughty, so I am reluctant to label any individual as being a ‘bully’ just because they may have displayed bullying behaviours.

Secondly, the concept of bullying means different things to different people and is somewhat difficult to define.

In a recent CIPD survey 20% of organisations reported an increase in negative conflict such as bullying and harassment in the workplace.  This is not surprising given the current covid related situation with so many people having to work in difficult circumstances.

Bullying and harassment are frequently complained of when employees are put under pressure in some way.  Their work is criticised, they are under the threat of redundancy, or their attendance is being reviewed are three typical examples.  This is not to suggest that it doesn’t also occur because some people intentionally or otherwise seek to intimidate or dominate colleagues.

In Priti Patel’s case, leaked reports in The Times suggest that she told civil servants that they were ‘f***ing useless’, and even the brief findings of the full report by Sir Alan Allan, reproduced in The Guardian, refers to ‘occasions of shouting and swearing’.

What is bullying?

The definition of bullying poses challenges, and I covered the similarities and differences between bullying and harassment in a previous blog about sexual harassment.

There are lots of different definitions of bullying (unlike harassment which has a legal definition in the Equality Act 2010), with the definition by #ACAS as the most frequently referred to

‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.

The Civil Service have their own definition quoted in the report about the Home Secretary’s recent behaviour

‘intimidating or insulting behaviour that makes an individual feel uncomfortable, frightened, less respected or put down’.

Interestingly, the Civil Service guidance also makes this helpful comment

‘legitimate, reasonable and constructive criticism of a worker’s performance will not amount to bullying’.

How will I recognise it?

Helpfully, in another publication, ACAS give us a few examples which include

  • someone has spread a false rumour about you
  • someone keeps putting you down in meetings
  • your boss does not let you go on training courses but they allow everyone else to
  • your boss keeps giving you heavier workloads than everyone else
  • your team never lets you join social events

Sometimes physical intimidation can be involved such as when a boss stands or sits on their desk towering over an employee whilst addressing them, or invades their personal space.

Does intention matter?

Priti Patel said ‘I have never intentionally set out to upset anyone’.  Sir Alan’s report acknowledges that the bullying behaviours may not have been intentional and that the Home Secretary was ‘frustrated by the Home Office leadership’s lack of responsiveness’.  But, that’s not really the point, it’s more the effect that is important!

Unlike harassment (which is similar, but on the basis of some form of discrimination), bullying in itself can’t give rise to a claim in front of an Employment Tribunal.  In most cases bullying gives rise to a claim for constructive dismissal, and it is for the Tribunal to decide whether the behaviour complained of was so serious as to breach the implied duty of trust and confidence that should exist between an employee and their employer.

They may decide this in relation to Sir Philip Rutnam’s constructive dismissal claim against Priti Patel after he resigned in February alleging bullying and whistleblowing.

The intention of the perpetrator does not matter (it’s not an excuse).

Being the subject of bullying behaviour can make some people ill with stress/anxiety etc. and give rise to a personal injury claim, and it may even be a breach of an employer’s ‘duty of care’ in health and safety terms, particularly if nothing is done after a complaint.

What do employers need to do about bullying?

  • A clear Harassment and Bullying Policy (and the best will give examples so that employees understand the types of behaviours that are unacceptable) will be important in large organisations, but they are not everything.
  • What will be far more significant will be leaders challenging bullying behaviours, setting an example themselves, and providing guidance to individuals when unhelpful behaviours are observed. Remember, that for some people, it will be unintentional, and a quiet word will ‘nip it in the bud’.
  • Don’t forget that your responsibilities will also extend to events outside work, but that are reasonably connected to work – this could include the pub next door where everyone goes for a drink after work on Friday.
  • Either in work or connected to work in some way, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if nobody complains I don’t have to do anything. ‘I can’t do anything unless you put it in writing’ never has been an appropriate response in this area.
  • Encourage leaders to be proactive and create an environment where people feel it is safe to raise issues and that their concerns will be treated with appropriate confidentiality.

Above all, remember that colleagues do not perform at their best in an environment where bullying is allowed or condoned.  It rarely gets the best out of people, so there is a cost to the business.

Given the outstanding Rutnam case mentioned above, we have not heard the end of this matter.

For me, it’s provided a nice opportunity to write about something other than covid related employment matters.

Stay safe.

Ken Allison | 25 November 2020 | Paradigm Partners | www.paradigmpartners.co.uk

Ken Allison is an engaging trainer and speaker who manages to make his topics, highly interactive, challenging, entertaining, and above all, relevant to the 21st Century executive. Ken uses his understanding of managing businesses to show managers what they ‘can do’ rather than what they ‘cannot do’.

Ken specialises in taking the strain out of employment law related people issues through training workshops for managers, and his firm’s ‘ExecutiveHR’ service, providing telephone based support services to businesses throughout the UK.

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