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Does mud stick?
In the light of recent accusations of bullying against Gordon Brown, it is refreshing to see a different view when a senior manager faces such allegations, especially when it comes from someone who really knows about equality and diversity, Sneha Khilay in her recent newsletter.

"I was thinking about the recent bullying allegations made against Gordon Brown. It led me to wonder who senior managers can turn to if they are accused of bullying and harassment.  Although HR is available to provide support and guidance, in cases I have investigated (where allegations have not been upheld) managers involved nonetheless experience a huge sense of isolation and vulnerability."

"In two organisations where I have conducted independent, impartial investigations, HR Department have highlighted that, although staff members can complain about their managers, their managers are unable to make counter claims against these staff members. Also, managers are not 'allowed' to make formal complaints of bullying and harassment if linked to the staff they manage, the argument being that managers should have the skills and knowledge to manage any incidents. It would therefore be considered inappropriate to make a complaint against staff for whom they have line management responsibilities as this would come within the area of 'managing bad practice'."

"So what of the managers who have been accused of behaviour that constitutes bullying and harassment?Although the term 'confidentiality' is bandied about in relation to investigations, information normally leaks and details become known to other departments within the organisation."

"During interview, one manager told me incredulously "I manage a £30m budget; I've been with this organisation for 22 years. How can anyone accuse me of racism?'  He went on to explain that, as he entered the most recent Management Board Meeting, the sudden hush and avoidance of eye contact by Board Members convinced him that they had been made (or had become) aware of the complaints alleged against him.  He lamented that, even though the investigation was incomplete, he felt that he had been labelled 'a racist'.  He was sure that this would impact adversely on his future career/promotional prospects and performance bonuses.  Although the allegations of racism were not upheld, this manager left the organisation shortly afterwards."

"As a Diversity consultant, other managers have told me that that, having undergone an investigation, they have, sadly, become hyper sensitive to comments.   One manager, let's call him John*, cited an example where, in a meeting with peers and senior managers, early retirement was under discussion.  John was convinced that the senior managers intimated that he should seek early retirement.  Another manager, Peter* was convinced that, although the sexism claims against him were dismissed, the formal investigation planted seeds of doubt in his colleagues' minds - as well as HR - that there was maybe some truth in the allegations ('no smoke without fire' as the saying goes).   He noticed that, over time, the number of women working in his section reduced by three quarters and he hadn't inducted a new female staff member in the previous 6 months.  In contrast, before the allegations of sexism, he had participated as an informal mentor on 'Valuing Female Colleagues' to other managers and had even been invited as a keynote speaker to the Organisation's International Women's Day Event, a major occasion in the work diary."

"It is recognised that some staff make harassment claims against their managers, in order to avoid poor performance action / changes in responsibility etc.  Such vexatious claims inevitably create a negative, ripple effect on team morale and productivity.  One supportive, open plan office with lots of conversation /laughter changed over time to a silence where you could hear a pin drop and colleagues treated each other with reserve and suspicion.  Unsurprisingly managers who, in addition to dealing with the personal fallout of undergoing a formal investigation have to take responsibility for managing team dynamics, show symptoms of stress and / or take sick leave. From the witnesses' perspective, some voice concern about speaking negatively of their managers and whether there will be repercussions whilst others apparently relish the chance to 'have a pop at' their managers.  Some witnesses have even told me, in formal interview, 'this is payback'."

"In such instances it is vital to have professional, independent investigators who have the experience and skills to deal with any situation that can be thrown at them with confidence and a 'no nonsense' attitude. What about vexatious complaints or complaints made in an attempt to seek attention? One manager, Anil*, was accused of breaching confidential information when he had congratulated a colleague, Helen* in the corridor, as he'd heard on the grapevine that she had been headhunted, and was moving on promotion to a rival.  As a result, Helen made a formal complaint.  During the investigation, Anil genuinely believed that others nearby had not overheard the conversation.  As a way forward, he proposed to HR that he should make a direct apology to Helen.  HR, after liaising, advised Anil that Helen was open to an apology.  Anil approached Helen several times to make arrangements for a coffee meeting to 'clear the air'.  On each occasion, Helen claimed she was 'too busy' and apparently did not want to meet Anil on a one-to-one basis. Anil reflected that whilst it is easy to raise a complaint to justify the complaint and provide evidence and, furthermore, to look at the person who is the subject of the complaint, is much harder."

"Bullying is real.  It happens every day, at every level of organisations.  Only by dealing with it decisively, but discreetly, so that the suffering incurred by all concerned is minimised, can bullying be eradicated from an organisation's culture."

"It is important to differentiate between devastating actions of an intentional bully and the implications/consequences for a manager where allegations are dismissed and not upheld.  It is important to stamp out intentional bullying but it is equally essential to provide effective support for blameless managers cited as respondents.  The key concern is whether, by making the complaints procedures relatively accessible to all, we have developed a business culture where, if managers are accused of bullying and harassment they are treated as 'guilty unless proven innocent' rather than the other way around.  And, even if managers are proven to be innocent, is it impossible for the individual concerned not to lose their credibility and reputation, often built up over many years?"

* Names have been changed

Mud Sticks - to mean that people are likely to believe something bad that is said about another, even if it is not true.


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