Sylvia Sage 28 May 2019

Helping to tackle bullying and harassment

Bullying and harassment in local authorities is a serious issue that needs attention.

Councils cannot afford to allow this issue to spread and harm employee wellbeing and productivity across the authority. But if local authorities want to avoid such a situation, they must act.

What’s the issue?

Concern over inappropriate behaviour has grown in the wake of the #metoo movement, which has put a spotlight on harassment and bullying in the workplace.

In the UK, the issue was also brought into focus by the independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in the House of Commons. The inquiry found the problem was widespread and exacerbated by inadequate procedures to deal with it.

Local authorities are not immune

A freedom of information request has shown, local authority employees also suffer from inappropriate behaviour. Formal grievances involving bullying and harassment by council staff have increased by 7.5% over the past three years.

The proportion of grievances upheld or partially upheld rose to 26% in 2017-18, up from 21% in 2015-16. And these are only the cases that have been reported and brought to a tribunal.

What’s the impact?

Besides the effect on the victims themselves, discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment affect the mental and physical wellbeing of all employees and create a dysfunctional team environment. As a result, employee morale, engagement and productivity suffer.

Alongside the impact on productivity, councils face a growing legal, reputational and financial risk from allegations and grievances.

So, what can be done?

To help tackle this issue and prevent a crisis, local authorities need to do three things:

1. Raise awareness

Local authorities need to begin by raising awareness of the issue and enabling their staff to recognise bullying and harassment.

Simply put, bullying and harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, offended, excluded, or undermined.

Harassment is illegal when enduring it is a condition of employment or when it is severe enough to be considered intimidating, hostile or abusive.

Often harassment is not a one-off incident but a pattern of behaviour. Offensive conduct may include jokes, slurs, insults, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule, offensive pictures or someone interfering with work. Inappropriate behaviour should be defined in the local authority’s HR or Dignity at Work policy.

Importantly, it is the impact of such behaviour that matters, even if that impact is not intended.

2. Enable defence

Local authorities need to enable their staff and managers to act in defence of themselves and others.

There are a number of informal and formal steps employees can take. The first step might be to take informal action, such as having a conversation with the offender to raise a concern (if it is safe to do so).

If informal steps are insufficient, action should become more formal. This might include keeping a written record, reporting the incident and involving HR, an Inclusion Officer, possibly senior management.

Local authority leaders have a particular responsibility under the Public Sector Equality Duty 2011 to ensure that their authorities ‘play their part in making society fairer by tackling discrimination and providing equality of opportunity for all'.

3. Create shared values

To help teams to build respectful and productive workplaces, local authorities must prioritise the creation of values which are truly shared and which all live and work by.

Creating shared values helps to address the physical, behavioural and cultural changes that need to happen.

The tone needs to be set from the top – leaders, elected or otherwise, are responsible for the culture of an organisation.

Bullying and harassment within local authorities is a serious issue. Beyond the impact on the victims, dysfunctional cultures affect the ability of local authorities to do their best for the communities they serve.

Inappropriate behaviour also increases the legal, reputational and financial risks for councils. Local authorities are already struggling with limited resources, so they must act to prevent this issue becoming more widespread and more serious.

Sylvia Sage is programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions

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