Turning a blind eye to workplace bullying | What employers can learn from the PM’s handling of Priti Patel

After an inquiry uncovered evidence of bullying by Home Secretary Priti Patel, the nation waited for Boris Johnson to take action. However, despite mounting public pressure, the Prime Minister stuck his neck on the line – expressing “full confidence” in Ms Patel and rejecting official advice that she had broken the ministerial code.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before criticism began to pour in. Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer expressed his disappointment at the Prime Minister’s passivity, saying: “If I were the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary would have been removed from her job.

“It is hard to imagine another workplace in the UK where this behaviour would be condoned by those at the top. The Government should be setting an example.”

Many share the same concern – that the Prime Minister’s decision sends the wrong message to other senior leaders who may find themselves in similar scenarios. Indeed, much of the conversation has moved from a discussion of Ms Patel’s actions to Boris Johnson’s handling of the situation, or lack thereof.

So, what are the dangers of sweeping bullying under the rug, and what lessons can we learn as people leaders?

1. Always act on the evidence

Many of the frustrations levelled at the Prime Minister center around his decision to disregard the findings of independent report, which concluded that the Home Secretary had breached the ministerial code, “even if unintentionally”, with behaviour “that can be regarded as bullying” towards civil servants.

James Tamm, Employment Law Director at Ellis Whittam, says that choosing to ignore evidence of bullying is a dangerous decision that undermines the purpose of an investigation. “It is absolutely not acceptable to do nothing in this sort of situation. If presented with evidence of bullying, the perpetrator must be sanctioned”, says James.

“Ignoring the outcome of an investigation is highly inadvisable, as it could well amount to a breach of trust and confidence, allowing the victim to resign and claim constructive dismissal. If the bullying was due to a protected characteristic, there’s also a risk of discrimination claims.”

He explains: “Often, the only way for employers to defend this sort of harassment claim is by arguing that they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring. That defence has no chance of succeeding if the conduct in question has been condoned by those at the top.

“In this case, the PM seems to be relying on the fact that Ms Patel’s behaviour may have been unintentional. That is a mistake and would not constitute a defence to a constructive dismissal claim. With that sort of claim, the question for the Tribunal is simply whether the employers conduct had the purpose or effect of destroying the relationship of trust and confidence between the parties. The employer’s intention is irrelevant”.

2. Your actions (and inactions) establish and reflect your organisational values

An organisation’s culture is built on shared beliefs and values. These beliefs and values are established by leaders, and it’s not just what you do but what you don’t do that speaks volumes about what they are.

The way you respond to issues such as bullying defines your standards and expectations and sets the tone for what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. By failing to take a firm stance against such conduct, you risk sending a dangerous message to your workforce that the organisation won’t treat complaints seriously, which may create mistrust and make victims reluctant to speak out in future. This is what makes bullying a toxic and insidious issue.

As well as taking a firm stance against the wrong behaviour when it arises, communicate and reinforce the right values through your recruitment practices, training, performance management programmes and reward and recognition schemes.

3. Can you afford the repercussions?

Deciding not to dismiss an employee for bullying leaves the door open to an Employment Tribunal. Employers therefore often resort to settlement agreements, whereby an individual waives their rights to bring a claim. However, these are costly.

In March, a former aide to Priti Patel received a £25,000 payout from the government after claiming she was bullied by the then employment minister.

James says: “By failing to deal with problems early and fairly, they will only snowball, and the employer will end up in a situation where their inaction costs them money. That might be because the relationship with your employee deteriorates to the point where the only option is to settle them out or face a claim or, worse, they actually issue proceedings and pursue the matter all the way to a full Tribunal hearing.

“This expense, of course, is on top of the reputational consequences of accusations of this nature, the cost of which can be unquantifiable.”

4. Protecting toxic managers may cost you loyal employees

Often, a sense of loyalty to managers – or perhaps a fear of how you’ll survive without them – can make employers reluctant to lay down the law. In truth, you may not want to dismiss them, but trying to placate the situation through less severe sanctions or alternative solutions such as mediation is likely to be viewed as taking sides.

In many cases, this will be enough to push the complainant out, as we have seen with the resignation of Sir Alex, Boris Johnson’s advisor, who resigned after the Prime Minister overruled his conclusions and refused to dismiss Ms Patel, instead imploring MPs to “form a square around the Pritster” – a comment that has sparked further outrage.

James says: “It is incredibly dispiriting to employees to see people going unpunished for what would normally amount to a disciplinary offence. It may be uncomfortable to confront, but you will not retain your best employees by having a culture that will not address workplace bullying.

“Employees who feel compelled to leave under these circumstances are arguably more likely to bring a claim.”

Indeed, Sir Philip Rutnam, the former Home Office permanent secretary, resigned over the issue in March – accusing Ms Patel of a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” against him – and is claiming constructive dismissal at an Employment Tribunal.  

employee resignation

5. Inaction may make it more difficult to enforce rules in future

In order for any workplace policy to be effective, it must be applied consistently. While each case should be considered on its own merits, by setting inaction as the standard in situations like these, employers may find they have less scope to dismiss others for similar offences in future.

James says: “Employers should always take action where required to avoid setting a dangerous precedent or having to justify to a Tribunal why two comparable situations warranted different sanctions.”

“It’s important to follow your policies, not only to ensure fairness but so as not to undermine their effectiveness in future – saying you take a firm stance against bullying means nothing if the reality is different.”

6. That’s not to say dismissal is always the answer

Whilst many are outraged at the Prime Minister’s refusal to dismiss Ms Patel, not all cases will warrant this sanction.

James explains: “Bullying is fairly likely to be classed as gross misconduct, but it’s always a question of fact and degree. Some episodes of bullying will be less serious than others, and employers must recognise this and act accordingly. Remember, the ultimate question in unfair dismissal cases is whether the dismissal was within the range of reasonable responses – and that will be fact specific.

Some disciplinary procedures will allow for demotion as an alternative to dismissal, so that is sometimes an option.”

Some reports have suggested that while the Prime Minister may not sack Ms Patel or ask her to resign, he could move her to a different position in a reshuffle later this year or early next year.

In need of advice?

Issues of bullying, harassment and discrimination in the workplace can be incredibly difficult to deal with, and employers must of course be mindful of employment legislation in their handling of these issues. Our highly-qualified Employment Law specialists can help you to identify the best course of action, offer practical advice based on your specific circumstances and preferred outcome, and guide you through the process – avoiding legal pitfalls along the way.

For support, call 0345 226 8393 or find out more about our unlimited, fixed-fee service.

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