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September 2021
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Tackling bullying and harassment in Westminster

Sylvia Sage

Reporter: Stuart Littleford

Over the past 18 months, House of Commons authorities have come under repeated fire for their lack of action to address bullying and harassment.

Dame Laura Cox, who authored a report in 2018 which laid bare the scale of the problem, criticised the slow pace of progress a year on from its publication.

She said: “Delay can only serve to increase frustration and hinder the restoring of trust and confidence of both House staff and members of the public alike.”

Her report was commissioned following a string of accusations of bullying and harassment against MPs, peers and other senior officials within Westminster.

Cox’s calls for an independent complaints system have been largely ignored.

The political and economic stalemate of 2019 may have been part of the problem.  But we have now entered a new decade with a new government boasting a large majority and a mandate for change, so there is no longer any excuse.

So, what can leading figures in Westminster do to stamp out the ‘toxic’ working culture once and for all?

While a robust complaints process will undoubtedly help, it will not tackle the root causes of the problem. This will require a change in attitudes and working culture, which is a much longer process, but it is achievable if key steps are taken.

1. Education, education, education

Leading figures within Westminster need to educate themselves, all MPs, peers and staff on what constitutes inappropriate behaviour.

Harassment and bullying can be defined as conduct that makes someone feel intimidated or offended. Discrimination is “less favourable treatment of another person or persons”.

Harassment and discrimination are illegal when conduct is severe enough to be considered intimidating, hostile or abusive, when it is a condition of employment and/or related to any of nine protected characteristics defined by the Equality Act 2010, which include gender, disability, age, race, religion and sexual orientation.

Offensive conduct, which should be defined in the HR or Dignity at Work policy, may include jokes, slurs, insults, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule, offensive pictures or interference with work.

It is important to note that it is the impact of the behaviour which is key, rather than the intent. A particular action might be considered harassment, even if the effect is unintended.

The House of Commons Standards Commissioner, Kathryn Stone, responsible for tackling the issue of harassment in Westminster, has suggested a new ‘behaviour code’, which would come with a range of sanctions to deal with those found to have abused staff or colleagues.

2. Build positive values 

Once negative and destructive behaviours have been defined, MPs, peers and Westminster staff need to collaboratively define the positive values and behaviours which will support a happy, productive workplace.

This involves bringing teams together to agree on a set of shared values and desired behaviours they can work towards. This process needs to engage and involve everyone, at every level, to ensure that expectations are clear and that all staff are supportive of the resulting changes.

For ideas to flow, it is essential to create a safe, relaxed environment, removed from the day-to-day workplace, ideally with the help of an external facilitator to guide discussions and ensure that everyone is able to share their opinions. A consensus must be reached on what desirable values and behaviours will create a respectful working environment.

In this way, everyone can start to hold themselves and each other accountable to uphold these clearly defined positive values and live the associated behaviours.

3. Change from the top down

MPs are elected representatives. They need to lead by example. Politics is stressful and demanding, the work involving long hours. MPs and their staff are pulled in many different directions. When those at the top feel under pressure, they are too likely to pass this down, creating a knock-on effect which results in a toxic working environment at every level.

This is why culture change in Westminster must start at the top.

Rather than shy away from the criticism, MPs and senior staff should instead embrace it.  They must examine their own values and behaviours, adjusting them to build a respectful workplace.

In high pressure environments, the line between ‘assertive’ and ‘aggressive’, or strong leadership and autocratic behaviour, can quickly get blurred. This is why MPs and other senior staff need to think about the impact of their behaviour.

This is particularly pertinent in modern diverse workplaces, where staff may have differing views on what constitutes respectful behaviour.

Problems often arise when senior staff are too caught up in their own work and pressures to take time for one vital behaviour – listening.

Feeling truly listened to makes everyone feel valued and respected, and keeps managers better informed about issues on the ground that need addressing.

Only by listening will MPs and others in Westminster ensure their decisions and behaviour make them the kind of role models their office – and the country – needs.

4. Enable defence

While better education on the issues should lead to a dramatic reduction in incidences of misconduct, Westminster must have robust complaints procedures in place to enable staff to speak out and defend themselves and others from inappropriate behaviour.

There need to be informal and formal steps that staff can take to raise concerns as early as possible, before any situation escalates.

An open-door policy that makes senior leaders available and approachable so that staff can talk to them when needed is a fundamental requirement.

If the issues cannot be dealt with informally, more formal steps must be taken to monitor and tackle the issue. This might mean keeping a written record of all actions and reporting the issue to a more senior figure or the HR team, who can then take appropriate action to clamp down on the behaviour.

The complaint must be properly investigated and all parties consulted in a sensitive and confidential manner, with appropriate support offered to the alleged victim.

Sometimes, dealing with workplace tensions is a case of educating the ‘bully’, who might be unaware of the damaging impact of their behaviour. However, managers must be prepared to take more stringent disciplinary action when necessary.

This is where Dame Laura Cox’s promised independent complaints system could make a big difference.

In combination with ongoing work to alter attitudes and “accepted behaviours”, an independent complaints system would help to facilitate genuine long-term sustainable culture change.

MPs and leaders in the House of Commons have a responsibility under the Public Sector Equality Duty 2011 to ‘play their part in making society fairer by tackling discrimination and providing equality of opportunity for all.’[1]

Discrimination and harassment in Parliament is damaging to the victims and their colleagues, but also to the country as a whole.  Dysfunctional cultures affect the ability of our members of government to serve their public.

The government’s ministries need to act as role models for the country.

Staff who feel valued and are treated with respect are far more likely to behave well towards those around them.

There is a large and growing body of research which provides evidence that boosting staff wellbeing will benefit their psychological and physical health and leave them feeling more energised, enthusiastic and motivated.  This has a direct impact on their performance at work. In a happy workplace, everyone is a winner.

Tackling bullying and harassment in Westminster – by Sylvia Sage, programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions


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