Bullying and Harassment

17 March 2022

Bullying and Harassment

The Bercow report.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

It was clearly no fun working in the clerk’s office of the House of Commons when John Bercow was speaker. The Independent Expert Panel’s report published on 8 March 2022 upheld 21 allegations of breaches of the Bullying and Harassment policy of UK Parliament including intimidatory and undermining behaviour, mimicking, repeating unfounded criticism of the clerk’s department both publicly and privately and generally a lot of unpleasant and oikish behaviour. Some of it was fairly spectacular and the description of how Bercow, when thwarted over an agenda issue,

“…launched into a diatribe. Physically shaking with fury, his fists bunched and trembling, his eyes popping, he accused the complainant for over 15 minutes of incompetence, duplicity and subversion, casting himself in the role of wise Speaker when all around him were evilly intentioned incompetents…”

could come straight from a biography of King John as could the reference to “evidence of anger, swearing, production of spittle and shouting”.

Bercow rejected all the allegations about him on the basis that the complainants were lying or exaggerating. The Panel did not believe him, but be that as it may it is another of his defences which is of more general interest. Paragraph 2.79 of the report puts it like this:

“Putting the matter neutrally, the respondent is a forthright man who never pulled his punches. He entered the office of Speaker, on his own account (here not contradicted by any evidence) with a very large and comprehensive agenda for reform. Part of the respondent’s case is that this complainant was resistant to that agenda, and that such tension as there was between them derives from that and nothing more.“

That raises a very difficult point. To what extent is it legitimate to use the ability to dominate others in pursuit of a desirable objective, and what is it that turns the exertion of pressure into unacceptable bullying and harassment?

 The Bullying and Harassment Policy for UK Parliament Edition 2021 contains definitions of both terms. That for “harassment” is fairly straightforward, paragraph 2.6 stating:

“Harassment is any unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them”

Yes, that seems about right, although one might cavil at the inclusion of “effect”, but certainly malicious conduct of this sort ought to be banned. It is when you go back to the definition of bullying that it gets more difficult, section 2.3 running as follows::

“Bullying may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour involving an abuse or misuse of power that can make a person feel vulnerable, upset, undermined, humiliated, denigrated or threatened.”

There are three parts to this definition and each of them contains alternatives. The first part of the definition, then, is satisfied if behaviour is offensive or intimidating. Shouting at a subordinate would satisfy this test, as well as telling them that they are being an idiot. Ideal managers may seldom need to do that, of course, but most do from time to time in extreme circumstances as a way of getting their message across. After all, at Matthew 12, even Jesus addressed the Pharisees as follows:

“O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things?”

That must certainly tick the “offensive” box and one can imagine that it might have upset the audience who could even have felt threatened. No, behaviour satisfying the first and third parts of the definition is commonplace among those trying to get things done and the world could hardly go on without it. The real test must lie in those central word “involving an abuse or misuse of power”.  What on earth do they mean? Is it the case that offensive behaviour in pursuit of a laudable objective is okay, when offensive behaviour for the pleasure of it is not? That can hardly be the case because it would leave no difference between the definitions of “bullying” and “harassment”; it is not clear from the report exactly what line is being followed.

All right then, can we do better? At what point does forceful management turn into unacceptable bullying?

Is it when shouting is involved? That cannot possibly be the test. After all, it is perfectly possible to terrify people without raising your voice, or by letter, or by social media, or in a lot of other ways. Is the test then whether the dominant individual is motivated by some sort of malice? That is quite a tempting line but it won’t really do. People who are clearly bullies in the colloquial sense are often quite unconscious of the fact, having just drifted into a habit of domineering and aggressive behaviour which they pull back from when it is pointed out to them. There is no malice here; just thoughtlessness and carelessness. Then perhaps we could define a bully as someone who uses aggression when there is no need for it, or who takes some pleasure from it, or uses it to boost his own ego? It is possible to argue for or against any of these approaches but none of them seems wholly satisfactory.

The trouble here is that the looseness of definition makes “bullying” an easy allegation with which to resist pressure to act. “You are a bully because you made me do my homework” is easy to say in these days of political correctness and it also sells short those who are really being oppressed. In the absence of a clear answer perhaps the best course is to remove the term from institutional guidelines and to rely instead on the concept of harassment. “Bully” can then be left for beef.

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