bullying and harassment, westminster
© Ali Ender Birer

Here, Sylvia Sage discusses how to dismantle a culture of bullying and harassment in the workplace, starting with Westminster

It’s has been more than a year since Dame Laura Cox’s report laid bare the scale of bullying and harassment in Westminster. The House of Commons has come under renewed fire for its lack of action to address the issue.

The independent report released in 2018 uncovered a culture of silence that “actively sought to cover up abusive conduct” in parliament.

It was commissioned following a string of accusations of bullying and harassment against MPs, peers and other senior officials within Westminster. Cox, who recommended an independent complaints system, has since hit out at Commons authorities for the lack of progress.

She said: “Delay can only serve to increase frustration and hinder the restoring of trust and confidence of both House staff and members of the public alike.”

The new speaker of the House of Commons Labour MP Lindsay Hoyle has faced calls to deal with the ‘toxic’ working culture.

While a robust complaints process will undoubtedly help, it will not tackle the root causes of the problem.

So, what can Hoyle and other leading figures in Westminster do to stamp out this abusive behaviour once and for all?

1) Education, education, education

First, they need to educate themselves and all MPs, peers and Westminster staff on what constitutes inappropriate behaviour.

Harassment and bullying can be defined as conduct that makes someone feel intimidated or offended. Discrimination is “less favourable treatment of another person or persons”.

Harassment and discrimination are against the law in the UK, and this is particularly clear where conduct is considered intimidating, hostile or abusive, or related to any of nine protected characteristics defined by the Equality Act 2010, which include gender, disability, age, race, religion and sexual orientation.

Note – it is the impact of the behaviour rather than the intent that is important. A particular action might be considered harassment, even if the effect is unintended.

2) Positive change from the top down

MPs are elected representatives who should lead by example. Politics is stressful and demands long hours, with MPs pulled in many different directions. When those at the top feel under pressure, they are too likely to pass this down, creating a knock-on effect which results in a toxic working environment at every level.

This is why the culture change that is needed in Westminster must start at the top.
Rather than shy away from the criticism, MPs and senior staff should instead embrace it.

They must start with examining their own values and behaviours, adjusting them to build a respectful workplace.

To deal with the demands of the job, MPs and others in Westminster need to be grounded and resilient.

The highly pressured environment can blur the line between ‘assertive’ and ‘aggressive’, or strong leadership and autocratic behaviour. This is why MPs and other senior staff need to think about the impact of their behaviour.

This is particularly pertinent in our modern diverse workplaces, where different staff may have differing views of what constitutes respectful behaviour.
Problems often arise when senior staff are too caught up with their own work and pressures to take time for one vital behaviour: listening.

Feeling truly listened to makes staff feel valued and respected, and keeps bosses better informed about issues on the ground that need addressing.

Only by listening will MPs and others in Westminster ensure their decisions and behaviour make them the kind of role models their office – and the country – needs.

3) Build positive shared values

As part of their listening process, MPs, Peers and leaders in the civil service need to collaboratively define team values which are truly shared, which everyone is motivated to uphold, and for which all hold themselves and each other accountable.

This involves bringing all staff together to agree on a set of shared values and desired behaviours they can work towards. This process needs to engage and involve everyone at every level to ensure that expectations are clear and that all staff are behind the resulting changes.

For this it is essential to create a safe, relaxed environment, ideally with the help of an external facilitator to guide discussions and ensure everyone is able to share their opinions. A consensus must be reached on what desirable values and behaviours will create a happy, respectful and productive workplace in this specific context.

All of this, in combination with the promised independent complaints system, should facilitate genuine long-term sustainable culture change.

Staff who feel valued and are treated with respect are far more likely to behave well towards those around them.

There is a large and growing body of research which provides evidence that boosting staff wellbeing will benefit their psychological and physical health and leave them feeling more energised, enthusiastic and motivated. This has a direct impact on their performance at work. In a happy workplace, everyone is a winner.

Discrimination and harassment in Parliament is damaging to the victims and the organisational environment, but also to the country as a whole. Dysfunctional cultures affect the ability of our members of government to do their jobs well.

MPs and peers need to act, and be seen to be taking action, to ensure this conduct is no longer perceived as ‘the accepted norm’.

By Sylvia Sage, programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions.


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