Ministerial bullying of civil servants an 'overstated issue', former HR chief says

Senior officials "should be resilient enough to deal with situations that might be perceived as being pressured or bullying", Rupert McNeil tells MPs
Screenshot: Parliament TV

Ministerial bullying of civil servants is an “overstated issue”, government’s former chief people officer has said.

Rupert McNeil, who stepped down as the civil service’s de facto head of HR last year, told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday that bullying allegations are “dealt with very well” in government.

He appeared to suggest officials who encounter problematic behaviour – from either ministers or more senior staff – should be expected to stand up to it.

“I think that in my experience… I think it's an overstated issue. I think if you have people who are competent in their roles and able to assert their position and say ‘that behaviour from the person above me is unacceptable’, you quite quickly see the type of culture that you want.”

MPs on the committee questioned whether there are adequate mechanisms in place for civil servants to report bullying. While there are formal procedures in place to report bullying by senior colleagues, there is no such process for allegations of ministerial bullying – an issue the FDA union has repeatedly called on ministers to address.

A survey of senior civil servants earlier this year by the union found 83.7% of respondents had witnessed unacceptable behaviour at work by a minister – but 69.3% did not have confidence that if they reported it, their concerns would be taken seriously.

Asked about the findings, McNeil said he did not agree the data suggested few officials are confident that complaints about bullying will be dealt with fairly.

“I think if you're a senior civil servant – and that's the basis of the FDA’s membership – you should be resilient enough to deal with situations that might be perceived as being pressured or bullying,” he said.

Asked how bullying allegations are dealt with in the civil service, McNeill said: “I think they're dealt with very well, actually.”

PACAC’s questions come two months after Dominic Raab resigned as justice secretary and deputy prime minister after an investigation said he had bullied staff by acting in an “intimidating manner”.

The investigation into Raab's behaviour came after weeks of reporting in the media that he had behaved inappropriately towards staff. In November, Ministry of Justice staff told CSW Raab was "known as a bully” and made a habit of “intimidating and belittling”

However, McNeil rejected the suggestion that officials had turned to the press because there was a "lack of outlets" for them to report it internally.

"There is a need to make sure that the processes in any employer are operating effectively and that people have have good channels," he said.

"However, when you join the civil service, or any part of the public service, you are signing up to Nolan Principles, you're signing up to the civil service code... And there are plenty of channels that don't require you to go to the press to raise your concerns or dissatisfaction."

He said he would "always condemn" civil servants' decision to speak to the media about ministerial behaviour instead.

"It's always disappointing when that occurs, and the danger that creates from a security perspective and many other perspectives is is very significant," he said.

Despite resigning, Raab – and his allies – pushed back against the report’s findings, suggesting the allegations against him had been coordinated to push him out of his cabinet job.

Asked yesterday if he believed some of the recent complaints have been vexatious or politically motivated, McNeil said he would not comment on individual cases.

“But if I look back over 30 years of seeing these things in many organisations, they look very similar. And they are more due to misunderstandings, lack of confidence on both sides – sometimes bad behaviour which needs to be addressed very, very rapidly,” said the former CPO, who has spent much of his career in the private sector, including as group HR director at Lloyds Bank.

“I think the key thing is that there should be very clear behavioural expectations on both the side of a manager and the person they're managing, and that's an absolute two-way street,” he said.

McNeil also stressed that he believed there was an “important distinction” between “bullying behaviours and what might be called abrasive behaviours” – a distinction that was drawn in a major review of bullying and misconduct in the civil service in 2018.

He clarified that “line managers should not be demonstrating abrasive behaviours”.

“I think one of the problems that occurs is that in many cases, you have people in senior positions – civil servants and ministers – going into these roles who perhaps haven't had the line management, training and experience that they should have done that would have made them realise that that behaviour is counterproductive,” he added.

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