Institutional Bullying

Every year the Home Office People Survey generates poor bullying, harassment and discrimination scores – areas where ISU people work tend generally amongst the lowest scoring – and every year there follows a round of senior management navel gazing to divine ‘what these scores really mean’…..

In fairness some of this is sincere and worthy if also long-winded and repetitive…..but some might be taken for tokenist posturing in justification of ‘do little or nothing’ response. In recent years this latter trend has largely predominated so People Survey scores have remained consistently poor.

Not to say there’s no merit in thinking closely about areas of weakness. This plainly makes sense. Frustration is that it isn’t really so complicated.

Sometimes bullying is direct and personal, unmistakably about individual abuse of power. The sort of thing that transports us back 30 years and more to awful schoolyard memories of the bullies we have known.

But there is also the phenomenon of institutional or corporate bullying. For reasons obvious, few employers are keen to acknowledge this, far less to tackle the problem at source. So what exactly is institutional bullying then ? Well, two things broadly.

Firstly, where employers proclaim their own integrity and values but then from a senior management level adopt policies entirely out of keeping with those virtues. So, for example, where an employer ostensibly committed to zero tolerance of bullying implements financial penalties in order to ‘persuade’ people to give up terms and conditions of service……then that is duress and that is bullying.

The continuing Home Office hostility to those retaining AAA & SDA terms and conditions rather than moving to Annualised Hours ( which most senior managers privately admit doesn’t meet business need in any event ) is simply shameful. Such conduct is grossly hypocritical and fundamentally undermines the credibility of Home Office anti-bullying policies.

Secondly where bullying is entrenched in an organisation, passes unchallenged and so becomes accepted as part of the workplace culture then this too is institutional bullying.

Most commonly this manifests where the job is seen as all-important and the people doing the work as disposable. Unreasonable expectations are placed on employees with managers highly motivated to maximise productivity but far less incentivised to look after their people. Those suffering from stress reactions to these demands are dismissed as “weak” while the obvious work-related causes of these conditions are utterly ignored or denied. Those who complain are tied up fruitlessly in endless HR processes with little or no useful outcome. Unsurprisingly these employers typically struggle to meet organisational goals, have weak staff retention, high levels of sick absence and deeply disenchanted staff.

Does any of this sound at all familiar ?

From the unwavering target culture of UKVI and Enforcement casework to ‘clear the queues’ pressure in Border Force, productivity certainly seems more important than people where we work.

Yes, there has been an increased emphasis on staff welfare in recent times – and that’s welcome so far as it goes. Admittedly sometimes the material is cringingly Janet and John – smoking is bad for us and eating fruit is good….well, who knew. Still there have also been some good stress awareness initiatives, useful material on menopause symptoms for example. But there is still a fundamental failure openly to acknowledge that the job itself, our working conditions actively create and exacerbate ill health. Poor rosters, excessive demands, no development, tone deaf management messages, lack of personal dignity and respect…..none of this is good for our health or souls.

We work always for progress but these are deep seated cultural issues. Until the problems are properly acknowledged with the worst impacts better mitigated and until senior leaders actually start living the values they preach without exceptions of convenience the Home Office will continue to have an institutional bullying problem.

We live in hope but sadly without expectation.

Mark Gribbin

General Secretary