Defra hires conflict resolution firm after bullying cases soar

Firm will help department to support colleagues “through difficult times”
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By Tevye Markson

19 Oct 2023

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has hired a dispute-resolution company to help support colleagues “through difficult times” after bullying cases soared.

The department has awarded the firm, Conflict Management Plus (CMP), a £200,000, two-year contract to “provide additional resilience”, including through “investigation, mediation and developmental services”.

Defra reported a five-fold increase in bullying complaints last year compared to the year before. There were 28 complaints made by officials to the department alleging bullying in 2022-23, compared to five in 2021-22 and fewer than five in 2020-21, according to a Freedom of Information response published by the department in August.

A Defra insider told CSW criticism of civil servants had contributed to this five-fold rise. They suggested dehumaning language, such as referring to civil servants as "the blob" and calling officials who were just trying to do their job "activist civil servants'" had created an "atmosphere of intimidation" and "undermined" officials' work. They said officials have also been "working themselves to breaking point" as a result of growing workloads, with Brexit playing a part.

The insider also suggested the rise may reflect an increase in the number of people getting to the point of feeling that they have to report bullying, rather than an uptick in incidents.

CMP has previously been signed up by several departments and other government organisations. Last year, the Cabinet Office recruited the firm's services to investigate a bullying, harassment and discrimination case, while the Space Agency hired the company to find out why one in six staff reported experiencing bullying, harassment and discrimination. In 2021, the then-Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport gave the company a contract to conduct an independent organisational review, and the Crown Commercial Service and Ministry of Defence have also procured the firm’s services.

The Hertfordshire-based company says its "ambition is to create workplaces where people can really be authentic, brining their 'whole self' to work, without the fear of conflict or reprisal".

A Defra spokesperson said: "Bullying and harassment has no place in our organisation and all allegations are taken extremely seriously, investigated promptly and always dealt with in the strictest confidence.

“While the number of instances at Defra remains very low, we are not complacent – which is why we have expanded our offer to staff by contracting Conflict Management Plus (CMP) to provide additional resilience in supporting our colleagues through difficult times via investigation, mediation and developmental services.”

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