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| 3 minutes read

Too keen or too mean - 'Tough management' or bullying?

After much speculation, Dominic Raab, deputy prime minister and justice secretary resigned last week. His resignation was in response to the report by Mr Adam Tolley KC upholding some complaints of bullying made against Mr Raab by civil servants.

Mr Raab, perhaps given his black belt karate training (a bizarre fact the press likes to drop in on a regular basis) has fought back. In his resignation letter and an article for the Daily Telegraph, Mr Raab criticises the report. He accused Mr Tolley KC of having a ‘low threshold’ for bullying and setting a dangerous precedent for future ministers. His supporters have echoed his thoughts; fellow Tory MP Joy Morrissey tweeted 'Sadly, we now live in a country where the definition of bullying includes telling someone to do their job…'

So, when does a ‘robust management style’ cross the line into bullying behaviour?

What is bullying?

Contrary to general opinion, bullying is not a legally defined term and therein lies some of the problem. However, all employers owe a duty of care to their employees to maintain their safety and dignity at work. This includes preventing, wherever possible, staff being subjected to bullying. Many workplaces will have in place a disciplinary, grievance, dignity at work and/or anti-bullying policy for this very reason.

Somewhat ironically, Mr Tolley KC sought to define bullying by considering another recent case concerning similar allegations brought against another government minister; the then-home secretary, Priti Patel.   

The court, although they did not define bullying, considered that there was a broad range of conduct that could fall within the definition of bullying if it was:

  1. Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour; or
  2. Abuse or misuse of power in ways that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

Mr Tolley KC also considered that it was necessary to distinguish between constructive criticism of performance and behaviour capable of being regarded as bullying. He also considered whether Mr Raab knew, or whether he ought to have known, about the effect of his behaviour on others.

What can we learn? 

People who feel valued and well managed are staff who will thrive and their organisations with them. Here are our takeaway points from the rise and fall of Mr Raab -

  • Training and awareness  Regular training on dignity at work; make sure staff are aware of your policies setting out acceptable behaviour, how their behaviour impacts others and where to go when they have concerns. We can provide bespoke training for your organisation on this issue. 
  • Take action early If you are made aware of any complaints, or even potential complaints about bullying, take them seriously. It may be that the alleged perpetrator is unaware of their conduct, and it may be that matters can be resolved swiftly when they are made aware.
  • Be aware of meeting conduct – Make sure that all employees are aware of appropriate conduct in meetings. Having concerns raised in front of an employee’s peer group can be intimidating and lead to them feeling humiliated.
  • It’s not me, it’s you – Where repeated concerns have been raised about the same employee, it may be appropriate to intervene and offer support such as mentoring or further training. They will most likely need assistance in managing and regulating their behaviour and management. 
  • Do not be blinded by the outcome  Mr Raab appears to have been so focused on the outcomes of his work that he did not always have in mind how he was impacting those involved. With greater financial pressures for organisations coupled with staffing shortages, ensure your culture does not move towards an 'outcome at any cost' approach.   
  • Adjust behaviour to each individual  Managers should adjust their behaviour to suit the person that they are speaking to; one size will not fit all. All staff need to do their job and do it well but what each individual member of staff will need to achieve will be different.   
  • Be constructive  It is unreasonable to expect every employee to be exactly like you, or complete work exactly how you would like it done. Make sure that any criticism is constructive and highlight where you have added your personal style to show that the employee isn’t wrong but just that you have a different way of doing things.
  • Don’t make it personal – It’s important to be aware that some employees will take criticism personally. Try to keep any criticism both constructive and based on the employee’s work product, rather than their personality.

If you would like any further information or specific advice, please contact any member of our team and we would be happy to advise you.

“Sadly, we now live in a country where the definition of bullying includes telling someone to do their job…”


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