What lessons leaders and HR can learn observing a toxic work environment

A beleaguered home secretary, a press briefing war, explosive resignations, grievance pay-outs and a lawsuit – accusations of a toxic culture in government are dominating headlines.

Most infamously, the home secretary Priti Patel faces allegations of bullying and belittling staff across Whitehall, which she denies.

According to Rhys Wyborn, a partner at law firm Shakespeare Martineau who focuses on employment disputes, the onslaught of scandals has raised the importance of rights and protections for employees. It has also increased awareness in the popular psyche about unfair treatment at work: “Workers know they can stand up and fight for their rights,” he says.

So, what lessons can we learn from the government’s culture crisis? And what HR policies will reduce the risk of bullying and harassment, or banish it from our workplaces?

In the past three years, 15% of workers have suffered from bullying and 8% from harassment at work according to a 2020 report from the CIPD.

Such a toxic culture stems from: fear, manipulation, control, interrogation and poorly regulated behaviour says Tom Cassidy, an expert on interpersonal communications and head of executive coaching at Working Voices.

Toxicity can also be exacerbated by excessive competition, pressure, ambiguity, change, a culture of blaming and no clear goals, he adds. “An ‘eat or be eaten’ environment creates a vicious atmosphere.”

Conflict positives

But is all conflict bad? Not necessarily. It can be a source of healthy competition, argues Rachel Suff, senior policy advisor for employment relations at the CIPD. “People should be able to express their views respectfully,” she says,Diversity of thought can enrich discussion, broaden perspectives, and ultimately improve decision making.”

But even seemingly innocuous spats or banter can fester if unresolved and contribute to a toxic culture, Suff says. HR should be at the coalface, identifying and managing conflict in the office. The priority should be to nip it in the bud as quickly as possible, she adds.

Investing in training is critical to this, but only 40% of managers polled by the CIPD said their organisation had trained them in overseeing people.

“It’s not enough to do a one-off exercise, either,” Suff says, “They need ongoing support from senior leadership to learn how to monitor relationships, be aware of simmering tensions and feel confident to challenge bad behaviour.”

The significance of investing in people management skills was highlighted recently by Downing Street’s advertisement for a HR policy chief, reflecting concerns over the treatment of ministers’ special advisors.

Notably, the former chancellor Sajid Javid’s advisor was escorted from Downing Street by police after being sacked by the prime minister’s top adviser Dominic Cummings. Javid then resigned when Number 10 later demanded he fire all his aids.

Unfair treatment can harmfully impact employee wellbeing and organisational performance – and poor people management is often to blame. A 2017 study from The British Psychological Society found that people with toxic bosses, high in narcissism and psychopathy, were more depressed and more likely to bully others, creating a vicious cycle.

“Unhappy workers are also less productive and more likely to quit,” says Amanda Goodall, a senior lecturer at Cass Business School.

In contrast, companies with strong cultures often outperform competitors. Employee satisfaction is positively correlated with stock market returns, Goodall adds, with happiness making workers more productive.

Calling out a bully at work requires bravery, but many organisations fail to stamp out bad behaviour effectively. Worryingly, nearly a quarter of workers think that bullying and harassment are hidden or ignored in their organisation, according to the CIPD. Many were blamed for the problem after coming forward with a complaint.

Little wonder that some “suffer in silence, fearful of recriminations and the consequences of rocking the boat” says Shakespeare Martineau’s Wyborn. He cites the example of former home office chief Philip Rutnam, who resigned in an explosive fashion, claiming there was a “vicious and orchestrated” media briefing campaign against him.

Privacy vs accountability

The war of words with home secretary Patel highlights the need for an open-door policy, where people can raise problems confidentially and resolve conflict in private, says Kate Martin, an associate in the employment team at law firm JMW.

But it also raises questions over whether women and ethnic minorities working in predominately white, male-dominated environments face extra scrutiny because they stand out, says Sandra Kerr, race equality director at Business in the Community.

She believes they do: “If women make mistakes, people can be harder on them and women of colour even more so. Priti Patel is of Asian heritage, and Asians are stereotyped as being quiet. The establishment probably think she’s totally out of mould. It’s like, how dare you be imperfect? You should be glad you’re in that job.”

Of course, white male politicians have been accused of bullying too, such as the former Commons speaker John Bercow, who also denied the allegations.

Leaders must embody the culture they wish to create, says David Wreford, a partner at the consultancy Mercer: “Poor conduct tacitly gives people license to behave in an unfiltered way.”

Best practice is to clearly define and communicate to workers what constitutes bullying in your organisation, illustrated with examples, says JMW’s Martin.

But organisations should involve employees in defining the company’s values: culture change cannot come from the top down, says Rob Jupp, CEO of Brightstar, which distributes secured property debt.

“You need to get to a point where everyone buys into it,” Jupp says, “where if someone rebels against the status quo they are seen as being anti-social.” Creating a collaborative and inclusive culture helped to lower tension and anxiety on his high-octane trading floor.

There is no legal definition for bullying, which can be subjective and comes in many guises. Acas, the arbitration service, defines it as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour”, or an abuse or misuse of power to “undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure”.

People managers should assess each instance on a case by case basis and follow their existing disciplinary process to resolve disputes, says Martin at JMW.

Bullying becomes harassment, defined by the Equality Act, when it is linked to a protected characteristic, such as gender, race or religion. It can lead to a financial settlement through a meditator, such as Acas, or to an employment tribunal.

A bullied employee, on the other hand, can sue their organisation for constructive dismissalwhen you are forced to leave an organisation against your will because of its shoddy conduct. Rutnam, for example, is suing the government on these grounds.

If bullying caused stress that forced a worker off sick, they could lodge a personal injury claim too, adds Martin.

Ultimately though, she says the onus is on employers to put measures in place for staff to raise a grievance, investigate it thoroughly, and make sure there’s a satisfactory outcome for everyone. Otherwise, organisations risk a toxic culture that erodes employee wellbeing, stunts performance and can lead to costly legal claims.

“It’s about making sure you have a working environment that doesn’t allow this to happen in the first place,” says Martin, “and if it does, address it quickly.”

Further reading:

Ensuring assertiveness is not seen as bullying

What we've learned about culture over the past 10 years