Sylvia Sage: The need to tackling bullying and harassment in Parliament

Two new independent reports released during July 2019 show a culture of bullying and harassment in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

The author of the House of Lords report, lawyer Naomi Ellenbogen, found one in five peers had behaved inappropriately or in a rude or high-handed manner.  This included instances of sexual harassment.

Meanwhile the report into the House of Commons found that a “constant ‘drip, drip’, as more than one contributor put it, eats away at the employee’s self-confidence until they become anxious, exhausted and ill, incapable of performing their job and resign or are dismissed.”

Central government cannot afford to allow this behaviour to persist and undermine employee wellbeing and performance.  The signals sent by Peers and MPs are critical for the example they give to the communities they serve.

What’s the issue?

Concern over inappropriate behaviour has grown in the wake of the #metoo movement, which has put a spotlight on discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace.

In the UK, the issue was brought into focus by the independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in the House of Commons. Dame Laura Cox’s inquiry found the problem to be widespread and exacerbated by inadequate procedures.

The report revealed a culture that has actively sought to cover up abusive conduct. As worryingly, Dame Laura Cox also noted the palpable lack of protection for individuals that report such abuse.

What’s the impact?

Besides the effect on the victims themselves, discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment affect the mental and physical wellbeing of all employees and create a dysfunctional team environment. As a result, employee morale, engagement and performance suffer.

Alongside the impact on performance, there are legal, reputational and financial risks related to allegations and grievances.

So, what can be done?

To tackle this issue, both Houses of Parliament need to:

1. Raise awareness

Leaders, elected or otherwise, need to acknowledge the importance of the issue, and begin by raising awareness and enabling their staff to recognise and report discrimination, bullying and harassment.

Very simply, discrimination is less favourable treatment of another person or persons, and harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel threatened, offended, excluded, or undermined, or creates a hostile or intimidating environment.

Offensive conduct, which should be defined in the HR or Dignity at Work policy, may include jokes, slurs, insults, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule, offensive pictures or interference with work.

Harassment is illegal when it is related to a protected characteristic and, equally, when enduring it is a condition of employment (even during recruitment) or when it is severe enough to be considered intimidating, hostile or abusive. Often harassment is not a one-off incident but a pattern of behaviour.

Importantly, it is the impact of such behaviour that matters, even if that impact is not intended.

2.Enable defence

Both Houses of Parliament need (a) to enable their staff and managers to act in defence of themselves and others and (b) to be seen to be doing so.

Leaders in public authorities have a particular responsibility under the Public Sector Equality Duty 2011 to “play their part in making society fairer by tackling discrimination and providing equality of opportunity for all.”

As published by the Ministry of Justice on 6th July 2012:

‘[…] public authorities […] are now required, in carrying out their functions, to have due regard to the need to achieve the objectives set out under s149 of the Equality Act 2010 to: (a) eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Equality Act 2010;…’

In accordance with the guidelines, there are a number of informal and formal steps employees can take, with informal action including speaking to the ‘perpetrator’, if it is safe to do – sometimes offence is simply not intended. If informal steps are insufficient, more formal action might involve keeping a written record, reporting the incident and consulting with HR, an Inclusion Officer, or senior people who will not be tolerant of such ‘bad behaviour’.

The Government’s ministries need to address inappropriate conduct and act as role models for the country.

3.Create shared values

To build a respectful and productive workplace, MPs, Peers and leaders in the civil service must collaboratively define team values which are truly shared, and which all are motivated to uphold, and for which all will hold each other accountable.

This would help to initiate the behavioural and cultural changes that need to happen.

The tone needs to be set at the top – leaders are responsible for the culture of an organisation.

Discrimination and harassment in Parliament is a serious issue. Beyond the impact on the victims, dysfunctional cultures affect the ability of the members of our government to do their best for the country.

MPs and peers need to act, and be seen to be taking action, to prevent this conduct being perceived as ‘the accepted norm’.





Sylvia Sage is a programme & client account director, training consultant, senior facilitator & coach at Corporate Learning Solutions, an international leadership and skills training and coaching organisation working with a range of organisations in the UK and around the world. Her main focus areas include training and coaching in leadership and management, building respectful workplaces based on shared values and mutual accountability, courageous conversations and conflict management, building confidence and overcoming barriers, interview skills, and many more.
With qualifications in business and management, languages, coaching and therapy, and a background in international banking, business and higher education in the UK and abroad, Sylvia has accumulated the skills required to work with people from any background and at any level.