How to avoid Priti fine messes (part 1) – we need a modern approach to bullying & harassment allegations




So, on the last day of Anti-Bullying Week, the government’s standards chief Sir Alex Allan has found that the Home Secretary Priti Patel breached the Ministerial Code by bullying people. He then resigned when Prime Minister Johnson decided to back Ms Patel. This is a case study for all leaders, HR and ER people who genuinely care about improving workplaces. There is so much to say it needs more than one piece. Today, what it says about the need for a modern approach to these situations and what byrne·dean are doing in that space. Next week, we’ll publish an Inquisitorial Code to help leaders, HR and ER faced with situations like this. 

I must start by disclosing my interest in the case. Ms Patel and I have two things in common. First, she’s the MP for White Notley where I once spent a happy childhood holiday with an uncle, the stationmaster. Second, we know a thing or two about workplace bullying, albeit from different perspectives. 

The old approach 

How the world has changed since 2015, when someone received a £25,000 payoff after she alleged that Ms Patel had bullied her. No liability admitted. No tribunal. Was effective action taken to stop it happening again? Clearly not.  

A senior HR professional recently confided to me that they were struggling to keep up with how quickly their world had changed. Not so long ago, resolving workplace issues tended to focus on minimising and settling the legal/financial risks, keeping it quiet, deflecting responsibility then moving swiftly on. Examining the causes and applying wider learnings came a distant second, if at all. It was easy for necessary changes not to happen. Trust was not built. Why was this? A key reason was tone from the top. It is a cliché, but it is true. Can you imagine trying to address bullying when the most senior leaders in your organisation either condone it or won’t do anything about it? As we saw today, the most likely option for someone of integrity is to resign (or whistleblow, if you have the nerve).  

The world has changed radically alright - #metoo, Covid-19 and the George Floyd killing have seen to that. A new approach is needed, and we are starting to see it in some of the organisations we work with. byrne·dean has something different to offer.  

A bullying investigation at BoJo Ltd 

Let’s place what’s happened into a fictional organisational setting – BoJo Ltd. Philip resigns, claiming that his very senior boss (Priti) has behaved inappropriately towards him. This takes courage. His career is damaged. He’s taking on a rising star who is highly regarded by Boris, BoJo Ltd's most senior leader. Trust in BoJo Ltd is key. Philip is hanging on by a thread. Priti has the right to a fair hearing, without being prejudged. BoJo Ltd stakeholders want to know if they can trust it to do the right thing.  

Thankfully, BoJo Ltd has all the documents you could ever want for a situation like this: a code of conduct, behavioural policies, inclusion champions and lots of worthy statements. BoJo Ltd also employs Alex, a respected internal investigator and adviser to leadership. BoJo Ltd is good to go and lets the world know that the investigation will be done quickly as that is in everyone’s interests! They are doing everything right! What a great workplace it must be! 

Alex’s investigation gets going. As well as Philip’s concerns, it hears that there have been a number of previous issues with Priti. It seems that her rise to power over the years has been accompanied by a trail of people raising concerns. Priti denies everything but apologises if she’s upset anyone. Alex concludes it’s significantly more serious than that. He finds that Priti has not treated people with consideration and respect. She shouts and swears at work. The impact she has on others is bullying. Such findings have historically meant that Priti should be out of her job.  

This presents Boris with a dilemma. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to lose a star. On the other, he doesn’t want to look like he’s condoning bullying. So he adopts a strategy of delay (hopefully this will go away?), procedural twiddling (the finished report becomes ‘unfinished’), reassuring words ("I take bullying very seriously") and personal belief is placed above findings of fact ("I don’t believe she’s a bully"). And then there are the contributory factors - no feedback was given at the time, it’s a high pressure and demanding role, Priti needed more supportive leadership and has been behaving better since the issues were raised. Based on all this, Boris decides to reject Alex’s findings and pledge his full (ie 100%, not a shadow of doubt) confidence to Priti.  

Ultimately, Boris can do what he likes under BoJo Ltd's rules. He can, and does, place his personal belief that Priti isn’t a bully above the investigation’s findings. Priti says sorry and continues in post, with all the benefits that brings. Alex quits. This story isn’t over. 

Time for a new approach

As Boris will find out, the old approach he has taken has become riskier and, to many, unacceptable. Societal – and staff – expectations are high and are constantly rising. Poor behaviour is much less likely to be tolerated than before. Trust is a major concern and trust in BoJo Ltd has taken a hit. Systemic barriers are causing outrage and are harder to sweep under the carpet. Organisations are more transparent than ever: personal, team and organisational reputations are at stake. Regulators are focused on culture as the primary risk driver. Yet the talent pool with the experience, emotional intelligence and nous to deal with this complexity is tiny. HR and ER are stretched, and budgets are tight.  

It is time for a new approach. We spent a year designing a new way of tackling workplace issues and assembling the team to help organisations avoid Priti fine messes. We love talking about this stuff so get in touch if you’d like to find out more.