‘Bullying’ and ‘the bullied’: council is right to prevent individual complaints being aired in public

by Colin Campbell

THERE’S been no shortage of negativity about Highland Council in recent times.

And some of it has appeared, quite legitimately, here.

But there are limits to how much flak should be directed at the local authority.

And when they warn employees that they could face disciplinary action or even dismissal if they go to the media with claims about bullying that does not seem a particularly unreasonable stance for those in high office to take.

Some councillors are furious about this and claim it is an unfair restriction on whistle-blowing.

But the value to the public of “whistle-blowing” has its limitations.

The council says whistle-blowing is only permitted when a staff member suspects malpractice or wrongdoing. That could include criminal offences, failure to comply with legal obligations, a miscarriage of justice, health and safety dangers, environmental damage or a deliberate attempt to cover-up of any of those issues. It goes on to say that whistle-blowing does not cover “less serious matters where an employee should raise these with their line manager” or an employee’s concerns about bullying and harassment or grievance policy.

It’s not easy to find fault with that.

Bullying, or claims about bullying, affect many organisations these days. It’s a problem, there’s no denying it and it should be taken seriously.

But I’d have thought with some degree of certainty that it’s a problem that’s taken more seriously at run-by-the-rulebook Highland Council than it is at some small firm down the Longman where an unfortunate individual has some nasty piece of work regularly breathing fire down his or her neck.

There have been extremely rare instances where threats by the entire staff to quit a private firm because of a bullying regime have made a headline or two. MSP Rhoda Grant got involved in one such case a couple of years ago.

But some tormented employee at a small private firm aiming to publicly expose the fact that he’s got a b*****   for a boss. No chance.

By the same token if the entire paperclips department at Highland Council threatened to leave en masse because of a “bullying regime”, word of that would leak out, whatever the whistle-blowers charter said or didn’t say.

But if its “a less serious matter involving an employee”, as has been pointed out, that’s something that should be dealt with internally.

Negative stories about the council – and all councils – resonate with the public, there’s no denying that. But there’s no conceivable justification for peddling them if they’re unfair.

But I could easily see a situation where one disgruntled council employee publicly aired a complaint about “a culture of bullying” and that attracting headlines which could blacken the entire organisation.

If officials want to prevent that happening I wouldn’t blame them.

I’ve worked in offices over the years where what could be defined as bullying took place. But no one had the option of complaining to the media. We were the media. You could either fight back, soak it up, or quit.

And the line between bullying and firm management can often be so narrow that it’s a matter of perception – in itself open to dispute – when it’s actually crossed.

Highland Council can be blamed for many things but not for wanting to settle such matters internally. They have in the past been accused of operating in a culture of slack management, sloth and idleness. I can well understand why they would now want to guard against any future attempt at the other extreme to be portrayed as a bunch of callous, slave-driving tyrants.

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