Speakers’ Corner – Bullying

Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, was recently found to have breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct.  Rishi Sunak, the UK Prime Minister, didn’t sack him immediately, as he ought to have done. Instead, Raab wrote a disrespectful resignation letter and produced an equally bitter Op-ed in the Daily Telegraph the following day.  I suppose, it could be said, at least he’s gone.  Another over-promoted Tory was booted out of office in disgrace.  But his response and that of the Prime Minister and the looney parts of the right-wing phalanx that dominates our airwaves have now construed this as the ‘woke’ Civil Service, plotting together to rid themselves of a perfectly reasonable, demanding boss, who was trying to implement the policies of an elected government.  I’ve even heard it suggested that Brexit isn’t working because of the resistance of the ‘remoaner’ dominated mandarins in Whitehall. 

And all this makes me angry.  I thought my despondency couldn’t drop further, but this latest episode is another example of how charlatans contaminate our politics.  It was too easy to blame Boris Johnson for a breakdown in decency.  Nor can it be attributed to the policies of the UK Government; they’re predictable, antidemocratic, harsh, racist, and unfair.  It’s what you expect from a Tory government, and things haven’t moved on since the days of Thatcherism.  The levels of behaviour have stooped so low that we can’t even expect our elected officials to behave with civility, sensitivity, and care.  And hot of the press, Steven Barclay, the Health Minister, has similar complaints being investigated.

Adam Tolley KC produced a report into complaints about Raab’s management approach.  He noted that bullying is not a legally defined term.  However, he suggested that the definition of bullying could be:

  1. Offensive, intimidating, malicious, or insulting behaviour.
  2. Abuse or misuse of power in ways that undermine, humiliate, denigrate, or injure the recipient.

Raab was found guilty. It’s a blessing that there wasn’t a Whitehall cover-up as before when then Prime Minister Johnson saved Priti Patel. I don’t want to waste more time on this distasteful Raab, as he is now history.  But I do want to raise bullying in a broader context.  I’ve been bullied; I’m sure you experienced and witnessed it.  It’s one of those subjects that all have knowledge and understanding. 

            An ongoing theme of my blogs has been how attitudes have changed for the better in my lifetime.  Acceptance, tolerance, and diversity are rightly valued and have changed our society.  And this is the case in terms of behaviour that were accepted in the workplace.  I worked for thirty years in the food industry, primarily in the meat industry.  As a graduate trainee in the late eighties, these businesses were dominated by alpha male bosses who dispensed their decisions like feudal lords.  The culture was rough and brutal.  Things were thrown, expletives were part of the command structure, and perceived failure was treated with a torrent of abuse. My daily routine was accompanied by a permanent knot in my stomach and high-stress levels every time a confrontation with my boss would occur. Many days I was close to tears, which were shed at home.

            There seemed to be no recourse; if results were delivered, no questions were tolerated by those with the power to change the environment.  And the bizarre thing was that as a young manager, I found that mimicking this aggressive management style was expected.   To my shame, I indulged in this berating style and turned a ‘blind eye’ to behaviours I should have stamped out in my teams.   Worse still, I acquiesced to silence if my tyrant boss was haranguing another manager.  I would sit, head down, happy that the abuse wasn’t directed at me.  To have collaborated in this culture is why I’m impelled to speak out against these practices today.  Those behaviours were not acceptable then and now.  Ironically, these work experiences have informed and driven my creative writing.  The main character in my novel, It’s Only A Crime If You Get Caught, is based on an amalgam of tyrannical bosses that have crossed my path.  The character’s behaviour is the catalyst for the twists and turns in the story.  I try to use humour to demonstrate the ridiculous nature of events.  In the real world, these incidents were comical, but rarely at the time, and they were mentally scarring.

Don’t get me wrong, I still expect a leader to be inquisitorial, demanding, to expect preparation and diligence.  However, this must be coupled with empathy and understanding.  On one occasion, I was taken to task by an employee who thought I’d overstepped the mark.  After an investigation, I was cleared of wrongdoing.  However, I did apologise because I recognised that for a complaint to be made meant that, in some way, my behaviour wasn’t of a high standard.  But that was over twenty years ago, and I like to think my style of management and the cultures I tried to create in senior leadership roles evolved with the times.

The psychological explanations of bullying warrant a dedicated blog.  Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that bullies are insecure and often ‘drunk’ on power.  I had one boss who would be ‘effing and blinding’ in one moment, only to turn to me and wink with a sly smirk.  Bullying is always a self-conscious act.  Raab had to sign a non-disclosure agreement with an employee in 2011.  Bullies have track records.

There is one action I want to encourage in all who witness or experience bullying.  Please stand up, and complain, as it’s not acceptable.  Accepting or enduring harassment is not an option.  This is not ‘woke’, whatever these right-wing nut jobs think it is, or evidence of a soft society making life too easy.  Moreover, I would argue that such approaches, attitudes, and behaviours are ineffective.  I worked as a consultant for a large pork business many years ago.  My boss was the CEO, Phil Ryle.  I mention his name in admiration, as he was one of the most influential leaders I ever met.  He was a tall man with a beaming smile that engaged the staff.  He was strategic and bright.  You would expect these qualities in a leader of such a large organisation.  However, it was his personal qualities of integrity, loyalty, and his ability to listen.  He accepted others’ views and used persuasion to bring people along even when we were implementing massive changes.  Yet, he never raised his voice, shut staff up, or would act if he hadn’t convinced the team of the need for change. 

In fact, on one occasion, he spent over two hours on whether the managers should wear hairnets in the factory instead of coloured trilbies, which signalled status.  To some managers, laughable as it sounds, such a change ended civilisation.  My approach would have been to have a brief discussion, overrule the minority voices against the change and crack on.  Not Phil; he gave each dissenting voice time and space to air their views. Bit by bit, their objections and arguments fell, and the meeting adjourned with a collective decision.  I watched in wonder and learned another life lesson, that Winston Churchill so aptly said, ‘jaw, jaw is always better than war-war.’

Therefore, I don’t think it is too much to ask that the UK government’s politicians respect the staff implementing their policies and treat them with empathy and understanding. And if they fail in that quest, we must call them out and ensure their actions have a consequence!

It’s 2023, not 1983; such bullying behaviour is not acceptable; it never was.