The RAF’s Red Arrows team is the latest household name to be declared as having a toxic culture, where the senior figures, ‘the talent’, have been ‘getting away with it’, says Arran Heal.

It’s another example of the abuse of power involving bullying and harassment, and in this case a particular problem around sexism and sexual harassment of women.

Investigators found unwanted physical contact and unwanted text messages and propositions were a common problem for women in the squadron of 120 staff — where there is a core team of pilots backed up by engineers and other support personnel.

It wasn’t a “safe environment”, they concluded. When it came to attending social events, female employees would set up a “shark watch” to help protect each other from unwanted approaches.

The final report is clear about the essential problem: a bystander culture” that meant the reign of inappropriate behaviour was well-known but rarely confronted. There was an imbalance in power which meant bullied staff could see nothing to gain from making complaints. Women, working within that male-dominated culture, didn’t want to be seen as being overly sensitive and over-reacting, to be labelled as a “typical woman”.

The bystander culture

The bystander culture is a common enough feature of organisations of all shapes and sizes. The smallest imbalances in power can encourage employees to put up with bullying and other inappropriate behaviours, to focus on the importance of certain groups of staff and their achievements and to overlook what’s unacceptable about their behaviour. McDonald’s has become a classic example of what can happen, as pointed out by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union: a system of zero-hours contracts, when crew members must depend on the goodwill of managers to be allocated hours, when low pay is endemic and working women are expected to live pay cheque to pay cheque.

Now we call it an abuse of power, but traditionally it has been more like a natural law of the workplace. Successful people have to operate by their own individual standards. But there’s not just been a change in attitudes. There is more of an understanding of what a toxic culture does to an organisation over time, with the build-up of negative experiences, repressed grievances, fear, disillusion, and the much wider impact of those feelings on a workplace. The recent spate of investigations of sports bodies in rugby cricket and gymnastics have highlighted how cultural problems go on for decades, become ingrained in attitudes, jokes and ‘banter’.

The City

HR and management need to break the easy, complacent hold of the bystander culture. But it’s not just a case of public admissions of problems, drawing a line and getting tough with policies and statements.

Look at the example of employers in the City and its culture of high-fliers. When the Financial Conduct Authority watchdog promised a crackdown on managers found to be in breach of expected standards of behaviour, handing out fines and bans, there was a sudden fall in the number of whistleblower reports. Had the problems suddenly fallen away — or, much more likely, were staff just even more worried about raising an issue that might see their boss penalised (and feeling bruised and vengeful)?

There has to be change in everyday behaviours; a change in the instincts of every member of the team towards being open about issues, minor grievances, before they become something bigger, affecting performance and their life.

More honesty

Workplaces need to be willing to encourage more honesty, more conversations that deal with root issues of power and inequality. That doesnt mean more cases of whistleblowing, but making constructive forms of challenge a normal and healthy part of the workplace culture. Having this kind of a ‘Clear Air Culture’ in the workplace is important for supporting good everyday working practices as well as helping minor issues come to the surface and be resolved early. Theres a positive cycle where staff at all levels know there will be conversations — mature, open, constructive conversations — about their experience and whats appropriate and what might need to change.

Are your systems fair and just?

HR teams need to ask whether their systems and approach are fair and just, do they lead to the kind of sense of psychological safety that encourages a victim to come forward. They need to ensure there are clear policies and processes in place around any kind of grievance or conflict in order to respond quickly and build trust, with access to options such as mediation and natural assessment.

Employees have to feel total confidence in the organisations response: that they will be listened to and their concerns dealt with appropriately; that there are trained staff able to provide mediation if necessary; and if the situation demands it, there will be an investigation, carried out professionally and impartially; and that their department is fair and reasonable in everything it does.


By Arran Heal, Managing Director at workplace relationships expert CMP.






Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.