Bullying Culture at Work and Priti Patel: Why it matters?
"Bullying is any form of unacceptable behaviour that causes an individual distress." (from the National Bullying Helpline, UK)
During Anti-Bullying week 2020, the news on the Cabinet Office inquiry uncovering evidence of bullying by Priti Patel - Secretary of State from the Home Department - came out (you can read the details here). This has created not few reactions all across the news, social media, and I am sure at home conversations.
Despite the recent efforts to eradicate bullying, this is still quite common in workplace in the UK, and affects a lot of individuals. In many cases, this is under-reported for fear of repercussion and the lack of action by employers. The government's response to Priti Patel's inquiry is extremely worrying, because it risks to undermine the slow progress on fighting bullying and creating a more inclusive workplace culture.
Any victim of bullying or harassment knows how difficult is to navigate the mental and legal hurdles when trying to report these episodes. Bullying victims end up doing a lot of cost-benefit analysis on whether to report or not. Reporting is not always the optimal decision, and in many occasions it feels that the best solution is to tolerate the abuse, as the mental toll on reporting does not end after raising a formal grievance.
Whether intentionally or unintentionally, managers may not make this process any easier. And this is what makes the government's response to Priti Patel's inquiry so dangerous. In what follows, I explain few of these points, and what they may mean for the efforts of those fighting bullying.
Priti Patel's apology is not an apology
Her apology does not recognise any wrongdoing "It has never been my intention to cause upset to anyone." There is no remorse or sorrow in these words. It is justifying her actions because "unintentional". A sincere apology takes ownership of their actions and accepts the blame.
Insincere apologies are widely used by bullies "I'm sorry you feel that way" "I'm sorry, but...", "I'm sorry if...". It is important that these are not accepted.
When reporting bullying, the first thing HR tends to do, is look for a friendly outcome. In many cases, this is to sit the victim with the perpetrator and ask them to talk through their differences. The abuser will use non-apologies and if the HR or manager is not capable or willing to recognise these as such, then will try to set the dispute based on this insincere apology.
Even if Priti Patel's apologise, this should not be enough
Priti Patel was in a position of power over those who she bullied. It is difficult to bully others without some form of advantage based on power.
Even after a sincere apology, building up trust between the parties is very difficult and may not always work. A sincere apology does not mean that potential future acts of bullying are going to be avoided.
If the victim is in a subordinate position, it will always fear repercussions if they report again any episode, and this may make more difficult rather than simple to report any negative episode for a second time. The fear of being considered as "over-sensitive" or "having a chip on the shoulder" may make the victim feels they are less credible, and the abuser has now gained the trust of other subordinates, HR and management, due to the sincere initial apology.
"Hard-working" or "stress" is not an excuse
Priti Patel's supporters have emphasised her "hard-work" and goal-driven spirit as an excuse to her behaviour.
This is so dangerous in so many levels. Victims of harassment in workplace tend to doubt themselves a lot, and wonder many times whether it is their fault or whether they did something wrong to cause the behaviour. They may end up working harder in order to potentially overcompensate any "trigger-behaviour", and may feel guilty of affecting the work's performance if they report the bully.
Hard-work bullies are really dangerous. They may be charismatic, strongly appreciated by some employees, and their personality may just be a bit considered 'eccentric' or 'they are doing the best for the workplace' which may mean they just had a 'bad reaction due to stress'. This narrative is difficult to eradicate and the bully will be widely supported, which makes reporting very difficult.
"Hard-work" should not be an excuse for bullying!
Patel was found to have broken the ministerial code (the document that set the behaviour standards for ministers in office), and it is expected to resign. This is not even the first time Patel she has broken the code (previous time found guilty was in 2017, and she had to leave here position).
Many workplaces have adopted "Dignity at Work" policies. These are used as a first step to fight bullying and harassment, and to create a better culture. However, if these policies can be bended, this will make victims more scare of reporting abuse. Clarity of policies and their applicability are key to fight bullying in the workplace.
The Prime Minister decided Patel's did not breach the code
Ultimately, even if Patel did not resign, her boss decided to ignore the inquiry and decided she didn't breach the code. This confirms the fear of many victims of bullying: the manager will not be on my side and will support their mates.
The work on fighting bullying and harassment in the workplace is progressing slowly, there are still far too many victims and under-reported cases, we don't need the government to make this work even harder.
If you are a manager, think how your behaviour and those with some power in your organisation affects the rest of employees, and work in creating a better culture that really supports all.