A zero-tolerance stance on inappropriate behavior, sexual harassment and bullying is not enough
After a succession of scandals over the behavior of MPs in the Commons, calls for a complete transformation of the working culture are multiplying: to deal once and for all with outdated behavior, instances of sexism and outright misogyny. an april Sunday time investigation revealed that 56 MPs (including three ministers) were facing allegations of sexual misconduct. Can a professional workplace really include an all-day bar and employees watching porn?
Parliament is filled with people with different levels and forms of power, and power in relationships can be misused, allowed to create its own kind of ‘normal’ that is hard to question. As Dame Laura Cox’s report on bullying and sexual harassment pointed out in 2018, an unacceptable work environment may have evolved over time because of silence.
It is a strong, character-driven culture that ministry staff must work with on a daily basis. Relationships must be made and remade constantly. Sometimes this may mean conforming to what is expected in terms of attitudes and behaviors, being “part of the gang”. It also means having to balance the ways of dealing with powerful characters while maintaining career prospects, all those fine lines between reasonable challenge and intimidation.
The Cox Report concluded that cultural issues in the House of Commons were so deeply rooted (a workplace of “deference, submission, acquiescence and silence”) that real change was unlikely to occur as long as the existing senior management would not have disappeared. At the time, Dame Laura asked House management to think carefully about whether they really understood the level of change needed and whether staff would actually trust them to bring about that change. they should each think about their position.”
When disclosures or complaints are so career-threatening, it encourages bullies to work harder to stay under the radar and to operate more subtly.
No need for debate. Professional standards of behavior should be expected at a minimum, in all areas of government. But it is not enough for those working in the Commons or in the civil service to simply proclaim a position of zero tolerance on inappropriate behavior, sexual harassment and bullying.
All of this only raises the stakes, making it harder for employees to speak up. When disclosures or complaints are so career-threatening, it encourages bullies to work harder to stay under the radar and to operate more subtly. Employees who believe they are being bullied keep it to themselves because they cannot see or imagine a positive solution, it involves too much potential for blame on both sides.
What we’ve seen in our work with departments on managing conflict and creating positive workplace cultures is the fundamental importance of trust. The civil service has an exemplary central mediation service available to staff – but any process like this loses some of its value if the wider culture is based on secrecy and fear. In other words, if staff only speak when there is no risk of upsetting someone who has more authority than themselves.
Departments must be ready to open up, to encourage more honesty, more conversations that address fundamental issues of power and inequality. This does not mean more cases of whistleblowing, but making constructive forms of defiance a normal and healthy part of workplace culture.
Having this kind of “clean air” culture in the workplace is important for supporting good day-to-day work practices as well as helping minor issues surface and get resolved quickly. There is a positive cycle where staff at all levels know there will be conversations – mature, open and constructive conversations – about their experience and what is appropriate and what might need to change.
Basically, HR teams need to ask themselves if their systems and approach are fair and just: do they lead to the kind of trust that encourages a victim to come forward? They must ensure that clear policies are in place regarding any type of grievance or conflict in order to respond quickly and build trust. Employees must have complete confidence in the organization’s response: that they will be listened to and that their concerns will be addressed appropriately; that there are qualified personnel capable of mediating if necessary; and if the situation so requires, an investigation will be carried out with professionalism and impartiality; and that their ministry is just and reasonable in all that it does.
Shocks and revelations might seem to galvanize action. But culture change takes time, and rather than repression, a more humane response that allows for flexibility and rebuilding trust in one another.
Arran Heal is managing director of labor relations expert CMP