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How to deal with a bullying scandal

The Conservative party bullying scandal shines a light on how not to deal with bullying allegations

The world of politics was rocked last month with allegations that bullying was rife throughout the Conservative party. The news broke after the death of Tory party member Elliot Johnson who died in an apparent suicide having claimed he was being bullied by a leading party activist.

Pressure mounted on the Conservative party because an internal investigation by colleagues was viewed as not having the same robustness or confidence as that of an external investigation, bowing to this pressure led to appointing an external investigator.

When bullying takes place, victims find it more difficult to raise the alarm when compared to other kinds of conduct and those on the receiving end often feel trapped and unable to seek support. On almost every occasion victims of bullying only raise the issue at breaking point.

Organisations need to treat every allegation of bullying with professionalism and robustness regardless of the initial impressions and this will result in a reputation for dealing with things vigorously and as a deterrent for dealing with spurious allegations.

A good first step would be to appoint someone external to the organisation to investigate the complaint; these investigations will differ from a short intervention to a lengthy enquiry depending on the nature and merit of the complaint.

So what do you need to do if you face allegations of bullying in your workplace?

The need for an external investigator

When an organisation faces an investigation on the scale of the Conservative party one of the issues it may face is the confidence of individuals to speak honestly and openly without adverse consequences. There may be a tendency to downplay or omit evidence to better one’s career chances, for example a young activist with political ambitions may decide it could harm their career should they be seen to be ‘rocking the boat’.

There is real value in somebody outside coming into an organisation: they will be treated differently; will ask questions without any internal consequences; will increase the efficiency of the investigation and give more confidence in the outcome. External investigators need to have the freedom to make adverse judgements and do it robustly.

What do the investigators need to do?

An investigation on the scale of the Conservative party will uncover vast amounts of evidence and is likely to uncover issues that may not be relevant to the investigation. An external investigator needs to be clear on terms of reference and impartiality and have the confidence to hone in on specific issues and deal with them precisely and confidently.

Moreover the best investigators will carry their work as an internal investigation not a judicial enquiry.

The role of an investigator is a very skilled role; they need the ability to form a solid assessment on credibility and honesty of accounts that have been given not withstanding any prejudice or other motivations.

In the case of the Conservative Party it made the right decision to appoint an external investigator, although it could have done so earlier. Whatever the outcome, if the concerns are either well founded or without merit everyone associated with the organisation will have more confidence that concerns will be treated seriously. This could act as a deterrent both to the bullies as well as to individuals raising spurious claims.

Darren Maw is managing director at Vista