Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
October 16 2018
Some 5 years after the Parliamentary Commission’s withering report on banking culture, it is the House of Commons itself – its MPs, senior management and staff – who face their own brutal and shocking appraisal. The disgraceful and, in some cases, criminal conduct by some of them and their collective failure to deal, legally or adequately or at all, with bullying and harassment of junior staff, particularly women, by senior staff and MPs is laid bare in this report by retired judge, Dame Laura Cox.
It would perhaps not have been politic of those bankers – quizzed by the Parliamentary Commission about their failure to raise concerns about the misbehaviour of fellow traders and bankers – to have pointed out to their inquisitors that the number of MPs who blew the whistle on fellow MPs who broke the expenses rules and, in some cases, committed fraud was the grand total of zero. (It would though have been hugely enjoyable for fans of sanctimonious humbug.) Those in the financial sector who had to take the MPs’ justified criticisms can perhaps now enjoy a touch of schadenfreude when they read Cox describe the “omertà that many MPs practice in respect of bad conduct by one of their number” and that “Members turn a blind eye to dishonourable behaviour by others”.
But the report goes further. Despite the 1995 Nolan Committee report on Standards in Public Life making it clear that MPs had to display the highest standards and that “it is essential for public confidence that they they should be seen to do so”, it seems – and who could possibly have foreseen this? – that self-regulation doesn’t work. The Cox report describes an entrenched culture “cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.” Processes and policies, no matter what fluffy names they are given (Cox is particularly critical of the “Valuing Others” policy) are described as not fit for purpose and not even compliant with existing laws on harassment and discrimination, let alone best practice. Investigations are inadequate and carried out by amateurs. Confidentiality is not respected, staff are fearful and unsupported and retaliation – or threats of it – are common.
The report makes for grim reading. Even grimmer in the two days since its publication has been the defensive reaction of MPs and senior staff at the Commons at the very idea of having to take action beyond the token. The House of Commons may consider itself a special case though, as Cox acidly points out, while “Members of Parliament are elected representatives…their mandate does not entitle them to bully or harass those who are employed….to support and assist them.”
But this report has much from which every employer, from senior managers down, and not just HR Departments, can learn. In an era of #MeToo, of younger generations being unwilling (rightly) to put up with boorish (at best) and criminal (at worst) behaviour in the workplace, when an unhappy employee can create unwelcome publicity and force companies to take action, all organisations can learn from the failures so forensically dissected in this report. It is not just Parliament which is a stressful workplace. All workplaces are likely to face these problems to a greater or lesser extent and it is no easy task trying to handle matters which can range from someone being insensitive and impolite, via bullying, leering, insulting remarks all the way to actions which may amount to serious crimes.
Three points in particular are worth highlighting:
- A “devotion to process and language rather than to real effectiveness” is a waste of time. Procedures and rules are necessary but never sufficient. They are merely proof of the importance with which the issue is viewed. But the real test of whether you have the right policies in place is whether your employees trust you to investigate properly and act on findings, no matter who is involved. Without that trust even the best written procedures are mere will 0′ the wisps.
- Those at the top have to lead by example. In yesterday’s radio interview Dame Laura posited three questions which those at the top should ask themselves when having to manage cultural change:
- “Do I understand that radical change is needed?”
- “Can I deliver that change?
- “Will staff have confidence that I can deliver that change?” Answering that third question honestly requires a level of self-knowledge and courage that is not as common as it should be.
- Codes of Conduct are a fancy way of reminding people that good manners, politeness and civility matter. At their heart, good manners are about being kind to others (and kindness is a much underrated virtue). Employees, managers, colleagues, the temporary and contracting staff who do the myriad tasks which keep a workplace going, however senior or junior, are human beings, not simply resources. Politeness and thoughtfulness to those around us cost nothing, can help mitigate even the most stressful of jobs and are the bare minimum which should be expected of – and for – all staff.
And, finally, not for the first – and certainly not for the last – time, if a problem happens, don’t ignore it. “This cycle of repeatedly reacting to crises only after they have developed into crises, and sometimes only after unwelcome publicity, is a perilous approach to adopt for any organisation, but it is completely hopeless for a place of work.”
As for the House of Commons, if it really is serious about changing its culture, it needs to realise – as others have – that this is the work of years, not weeks or months, and is a task which is never finished.