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Bullying at the Home Office – Just Who Bullied Who?

Bullying at the Home Office – Just Who Bullied Who?

In recent times Home Secretaries (both Conservative and Labour) have observed that the civil servants in their department have been on a frolic of their own and in many cases they have been bent on adhering to their own agenda and not that of the elected government. Some Home Secretaries have been forced to resign over the failings of or as a result of the connivings of the department. Priti Patel is the most recent Home Secretary to tackle the issue.

Managers have a right to manage their people and equally they have the right to expect staff to carry out reasonable management requests without arguing or dissembling. But as previous Home Secretaries had found, the senior officials in the Home Office had their own priorities and Ms Patel found it to be almost impossible to get the policies on which the government had been overwhelmingly elected implemented. Perhaps it’s not surprising she became irritated and started to require rather more robustly that the work was done.

Bullying is generally defined as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

Bullying is both ugly and damaging; but is it bullying to require employees to carry out a lawful management request and simply do their job? No, it is not.

It is reported that Ms Patel required staff who were being paid to be on call at the weekend to work at the weekend and she found it annoying when they made a fuss and dragged their feet.

At one time a manager might reasonably have expected a poorly performing member of staff to apologise and pull his or her socks up if challenged. That is far less frequent now. It’s far more usual to receive a grievance about the manager’s bullying tactics. And that’s is perhaps what happened here.

An investigation was carried out by a civil servant, Sir Alex Allen, which concluded that Ms Patel's behaviour amounted to bullying in breach of the ministerial code, though he conceded it was not intentional.

The investigation took eight months, but it appears during the whole of that time none of allegations had been put to Ms Patel, so she was not given the chance to give her version of events. I do not know if this is correct or not, but if Ms Patel was not made aware of the precise nature of the allegations and given the chance to respond before the conclusions were drawn, it’s not a balanced or complete investigation.

The ACAS Guidance on Investigations is very clear that evidence should be taken by both parties. At page 17 it states:

Informing an employee they are under investigation

If an employee is under investigation, they should be informed in writing of the allegations against them and that an investigation will be carried out.

They should also be advised of who they can contact if they have any questions or concerns during the investigation. This is typically the investigator, their manager, or HR. In most situations, an employee should be fully informed about the investigation into their actions from the outset.

An investigation should only be concealed if there are very good reasons, such as, because an employee may be able to influence witnesses or tamper with evidence.

Interestingly, the report concluded that the civil service itself also "needs to reflect on its role during this period”, from which we can reasonably take it that there was provocation.

The key is that while the message can be very firm, it must be done courteously and appropriately. That’s where Ms Patel seems to have fallen down. Under pressure she spoke heatedly. Incidentally, there seems to be some evidence that this is uncharacteristic. People who worked with her for 20 years said they have never known her speak in the way alleged.

There were mitigating circumstances, Ms Patel has apologised fully, and the government has decided to back her. That’s standard employment practice. Employers are expected to give people a second chance if there are grounds to do so.

The aim of the grievance process is to explore and address workplace issues. And that has been done. Despite this, there is a significant amount of protest from certain quarters that Ms Patel has not been sacked. That looks like a witch hunt (itself a bullying tactic),not the expression of a genuine grievance.

Ms Patel has already agreed changes with Matthew Rycroft the department’s Permanent Secretary.

  • Under the new way of working, Ms Patel will be given a dedicated team of officials who she can lean on for support at weekends when other civil servants have gone home.
  • Top ranks of civil servants at the Home Office will be required to submit themselves to performance reviews.
  • The Home Office has agreed to allowing Ms Patel to question junior officials directly who might have day-to-day knowledge of a particular challenge, rather than relying on information fed through more senior officials.

Let’s hope all parties can settle down to a more harmonious and productive working relationship.

Set out the boundaries of what is and isn’t bullying, for example, giving evidenced critical feedback is not bullying. Make it clear in your grievance and dignity at work procedures that managers have a right and duty to manage; asking an employee to carry out a reasonable request and reserving the right to take disciplinary action if the employee refuses do not constitute bullying.


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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2020 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.

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