Zero tolerance

Following discussions with the police last week Angela Eagle cancelled her walk-in constituency surgery after her office was vandalised and she received threats and intimidating messages. On Friday a group of more than 40 female MPs called on Jeremy Corbyn to do more to tackle an “extremely worrying trend of escalating abuse and hostility” towards MPs.  Newspaper reports indicate increasing levels of bullying or intimidating behaviour within local Labour constituency meetings and outside MPs homes.  Labour leadership hopeful Owen Smith called for Corbyn to take a tougher line on evidence of intimidation, saying “we didn’t have this kind of abuse, intolerance, misogyny and anti-Semitism in the party before Jeremy Corbyn became leader”.

It’s clear that whilst Mr Corbyn has spoken out in favour of what he calls ‘respectful debate’, saying “I’m not going to allow intimidation of anyone in the Labour Party”, many feel that there is a level of tolerance for what is currently going on – and that’s bad news for his reputation and the reputation of the Labour Party as a whole. Whatever your politics, and whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, strong leadership is critically important when it comes to addressing this type of behaviour.

Just take a moment to think about it.  If any of the incidences described in recent days had taken place in a commercial or publicly owned organisation, imagine what the reaction would have been.  Bullying in the workplace is a very serious matter. It’s an issue that has huge implications for employers, given the emotional and sometimes physical consequences of bullying – and for the employer’s reputation too.   Even setting aside the important moral implications here, (I don’t know about you but I certainly wouldn’t want to work in an organisation that thinks this type of behaviour is acceptable) there are financial implications if allegations of bullying and harassment can’t be resolved, leading to claims of constructive dismissal and the risk of costly legal proceedings. As leaders and managers of people, we are charged with a duty of care towards our colleagues, and that means stamping out bullying with a zero tolerance policy.

It means actively and publicly addressing bullying, building a culture that can shine a light on unhealthy workplace relationships and surface bullying behaviours so that they can be dealt with before major problems arise. In commercial organisations I’ve worked with and led, bullying and harassment are disciplinary offences and ultimately people can be dismissed – indeed, in some circumstances immediate dismissal can be warranted.

A look on the UK Government’s own website tells us that “ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) characterises bullying as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. The impact on the individual can be the same as harassment and the words bullying and harassment are often used interchangeably in the workplace.” Does any of this sound familiar? Even if the behaviour comes from someone outside your organisation, perhaps from a client or customer, you still have a responsibility to protect your employees and you need to address the problem.

And, what do ACAS advise in the case that employees complain of bullying and / or harassment? “Investigate the complaint promptly and objectively. Take the complaint seriously. Employees do not normally make serious accusations unless they feel seriously aggrieved.”  Just saying that you don’t tolerate these behaviours really isn’t enough – action needs to be taken and, equally importantly, needs to be seen to be taken pour encourager les autres.

There are times when leaders need to stand up and be counted, and addressing bullying and harassment is one of them. Oh, and by the way, bullying is in the eye of the beholder – that is to say what is ‘robust’ management to one person might feel like bullying to another – so you need to listen carefully and understand where people are coming from if you find yourself arbitrating in this kind of situation. Whilst your local MP might not technically be the direct employee of a particular political party, if you were in their shoes and found yourself receiving abusive messages I’m willing to bet you’d be looking to your leaders to take decisive action.  Not doing so is a message all in itself.

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