After a succession of scandals over MPs’ behaviour in the Commons, there are more calls for a complete transformation of the working culture: to deal once and for all with outdated behaviours, cases of sexism and outright misogyny. An April Sunday Times investigation found that 56 MPs (including three cabinet ministers) were facing allegations of sexual misconduct. Can a professional workplace really include an all-hours bar and employees looking at porn?
Parliament is filled with people with different levels and forms of power, and power in relationships can be misused, allowed to create its own kind of “normal” which is difficult to question. As the Dame Laura Cox report on bullying and sexual harassment pointed out back in 2018, an unacceptable working environment had been allowed to evolve over time as a result of silence.
It’s a strong, personality-led culture that departmental staff have to work alongside every day. Relationships have to be made and remade constantly. Sometimes that can mean conforming with what’s expected in terms of attitudes and behaviours, being “part of the gang”. It also means having to balance ways of dealing with powerful characters at the same time as maintaining career prospects, all those fine lines between reasonable challenge and bullying.
The Cox report concluded that the cultural problems in the House of Commons were so deep-rooted (a workplace of "deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence”) that there were unlikely to be any real changes until the existing senior management was gone. At the time, Dame Laura asked the House leadership to think hard whether it really understood the level of change needed and whether staff would actually have confidence in them to deliver that change. “If they can't answer yes, honestly, to those questions, they should each of them be considering their position."
When disclosures or complaints bring so much danger to careers, it encourages bullies to work harder at staying under the radar and operate in more subtle ways
No debate needed. Professional standards of behaviour have to be expected as a minimum, in all areas of government. But it’s not enough for those working in the Commons, or in the civil service, just to proclaim a zero-tolerance position on inappropriate behaviours, sexual harassment and bullying.
All that does in itself is raise the stakes, making it harder for employees to speak out. When disclosures or complaints bring so much danger to careers, it encourages bullies to work harder at staying under the radar and operate in more subtle ways. Employees who believe they’re being bullied keep it to themselves because they can’t see or imagine a positive resolution, it involves too much potential for blame on both sides.
What we have seen in our work with government departments on dealing with conflict and building positive workplace cultures is the fundamental importance of trust. The civil service has an exemplary central mediation service available to staff – but any process like this loses some of its value if the wider culture is based on secrecy and fear. In other words, if staff only speak up when there’s no risk of upsetting anyone with greater authority than themselves.
Departments need to be willing to open up, encourage more honesty, more conversations that deal with root issues of power and inequality. That doesn’t mean more cases of whistleblowing, but making constructive forms of challenge a normal and healthy part of the workplace culture.
Having this kind of a “clear air” culture in the workplace is important for supporting good everyday working practices as well as helping minor issues come to the surface and be resolved early. There’s a positive cycle where staff at all levels know there will be conversations – mature, open, constructive conversations – about their experience and what’s appropriate and what might need to change.
On a basic level, HR teams need to ask whether their systems and approach are fair and just - do they lead to the kind of confidence that encourages a victim to come forward? They need to ensure there are clear policies in place around any kind of grievance or conflict in order to respond quickly and build trust. Employees have to feel total confidence in the organisation’s response: that they will be listened to and their concerns dealt with appropriately; that there are trained staff able to provide mediation if necessary; and if the situation demands it, there will be an investigation, carried out professionally and impartially; and that their department is fair and reasonable in everything it does.
Shocks and revelations might look like they galvanise action. But culture change takes time, and rather than a crackdown, a more human-shaped response that allows for flexibility and a rebuilding of trust in each other.
Arran Heal is managing director at workplace relationships expert CMP