BBC Newsnight’s recent report on the Palace of Westminster, a public institution that should be setting the standard for exemplary practice, serves as an ideal case study to demonstrate how not to deal with allegations at work.

The approach to handling complaints, taken by those in power at Westminster, shows how a “culture of fear” at work is propped up by two key characteristics that can be easily rectified, if there is a genuine commitment from senior leadership: Fear of raising a concern at work and ambiguous policy and procedure:

Staff fears of raising concerns due to the risk of being:

  • labelled a troublemaker
  • seen as lacking resilience
  • disciplined / victimised / removed from role
  • blocked career progression

“My career at the House of Commons didn’t end when I was sexually harassed. My career ended when I complained.”

“Newsnight has found Mr Kenon’s name in the paperwork on a string of other grievances, intervening on behalf of bullied women clerks. He is widely assumed by other clerks to have ended his own career by taking these stands. Any hope of advancement disappeared. He has now retired.”

BBC Newsnight

Ambiguous policy and procedure

  • lack of a clear and consistent approach to dealing with unacceptable behaviour
  • ambiguous policy and procedure on many levels, including Scope
  • Confusion around reconciling investigation findings with a way forward
  • lack of employee involvement in the decision making process

“The investigation found Mr Farrelly’s behaviour to be an ‘abuse of power of position, unfair treatment and undermining a competent worker by constant criticism … The conduct was offensive and insulting.”

“Newsnight has obtained documents suggesting that, a few weeks later in December 2012, union reps were left with an alarming impression: they had received a warning, transmitted via a senior clerk, that if she did not agree to enter mediation, MPs on the commission might decide that the investigation was wrong, and she had not been bullied after all.”

“Mr Farrelly denied any bullying. He told Newsnight: ‘In 2012 allegations were made about me having bullied a clerk to the committee … These allegations were not upheld … Despite this, I apologised if I had inadvertently upset the clerk who had suffered stress. The policy under which they were investigated was considered to be so unfair to those complained about it that it was immediately withdrawn and replaced by another policy.”

“They regarded the system – where the final judgement lay with MPs and which had never been used to sanction an MP – as loaded against MPs. They also decided that the Respect policy lacked the required underpinnings to permit any action, so could take none.”

BBC Newsnight

Every workplace has its own unique culture, drawn from the nature of the business, management approach, individual workers, acceptable behaviours; led and cultivated, for better or worse, by senior leadership.

Creating an environment where workers are able to raise their concerns safely, without fear of reprisal should not be difficult to implement. It does, however, take more than soundbites from senior leadership to implement structures and mechanisms to achieve healthy workplace relationships.

Workers with the confidence to raise their concerns without fear of reprisal, together with a transparent, effective policy and procedure are central features in a workplace open to continual improvement and development; a workplace where power is used in a healthy way and good working relationships are valued.

Genuine commitment from senior leadership to creating a workplace where there is a clear and consistent understanding of the:

  • behaviours that are inappropriate and acceptable
  • consequences, for everyone, of inappropriate behaviours
  • difference between responsible leadership and bullying behaviours
  • value of effective mechanisms to enable workers to raise their concerns without fear of reprisal
  • importance of clear, unambiguous and efficient policy and procedure


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