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Bullying complaint but SMT not interested - by Dr. Karen McIvor

Q. What should we do if we have officers coming to us with bullying / harassment concerns, but we canít get our SMT to address the problem?

Elsewhere on this website I have drawn the links between b&h and stress, and the links between both of these and the culture of the organisation. I have described how and why working on the culture of the service, more easily thought of as the way we do things round here, is the most effective way of dealing with the problem at source. This may all be very well, but what can you do if you have a case of bullying, but your particular Force is in denial, sees the issue as a low priority, or doesn't care about how results are achieved as long as budgetary, operational and organisational goals are met?

There is an enormous sense of frustration out there, with JBBs actively trying to engage Senior Management Teams (SMTs) in working on a strategy to address the sustained if not growing problem of bullying and harassment (b&h) within the police service.

JBB officers take on the role because they want to help fellow officers improve their lot. It is therefore very difficult to be faced with a problem of behaviour which, according to all the policies and stated ideologies of the organisation, is unacceptable, and yet which past experience shows will not result in a good outcome for the bullied individual who raises it as an issue. When I talk about a good outcome here, I'm not just referring to a fair outcome, I'm talking about the possibility, or even likelihood, that the individual will be ostracised for complaining and may even find that they end up in a worse predicament. It's surely not surprising that the JBB officer feels frustrated given the choice between doing what may be morally right and taking a robust stand for justice, or seeming to let the target of b&h down by recommending that they get on with it in the knowledge that to complain would be inadvisable.

The main mantra of the Police Federation Rep should be 'first, do no harm'. We all know that the official documentation will state that b&h will not be tolerated, and that officers will be supported if they raise a complaint. We also know that the reality may be far removed from those espoused standards. Bearing this in mind, it is important not to encourage a bullied officer to put his or her head above the parapet if they are likely to get it blown off.

It will not help the individual involved if the Rep is unrealistic in terms of the remedies available, and their effectiveness, and at some time the Rep. will probably need to manage the b&h target's expectations. Rest assured that even if there is no safe way for the bullied officer to seek remedy through the formal or informal routes named in the policy, there are still constructive ways to help.

Generally, when the target of b&h first brings the problem to the attention of colleagues or their Police Federation Rep., their main concern is to get the behaviour to stop. They don't want to cause waves. They don't want to raise a complaint. They just want to be able to get on with their work and put it all behind them. This is the point at which b&h would be dealt with in the informed organisation. It is the stage where it can be addressed informally, when there is still the opportunity for resolution without repercussions, and where all the parties involved can emerge from the encounter feeling positive about the organisation and their own futures. Even when the SMT of the organisation is renowned for tolerating, or worse still, condoning bullying, the quiet word in the ear of the alleged bully might still be worth considering if, and only if, the behaviour is outside that person's normal management style. If this avenue is not open, the Rep's main priority should be to develop a strategy to manage the distress and provide support for the bullied officer.

B&h have been linked with stress in a number of ways. Although dealt with elsewhere on this site, it is probably helpful to remind readers that b&h have been identified as very likely to result in stress and to have negative outcomes for the recipient. One of the main objectives should therefore be to reduce both the level and impact of that stress.

The effects of stress induced by b&h can be thought of in four basic categories, being physical (e.g. migraines, high blood pressure), behavioural (e.g. sleep disturbance, alcohol abuse), psychological (e.g. depression, anxiety), and cognitive (e.g. poor concentration). Providing understanding and support, whether through medical services, counselling, colleagues, mentoring, support group or any other way that might be appropriate, will help the target recognise, and might help reduce, the risks of such harm occurring.

It is important for b&h targets to have their experiences and feelings validated. They need to know that the behaviour should not be acceptable within the workplace, and that it is reasonable for them to feel the way they do: whether confused, hurt, angry, sad, ashamed or even guilty Ė surprising though the latter may seem. Just by listening and showing understanding the Rep is providing an invaluable service. It might be difficult, but for both the target and the Rep's sake, care should be taken to avoid stepping into the role of counsellor. This is because the Rep could well find themselves out of their depth in terms of dealing with emotional or psychological issues that might arise. In turn this could leave the target feeling even more vulnerable and / or distressed. For this reason it is advisable to have the details of counselling and support services on hand. If, within the Force, there is a stigma attached to counselling, the individual may be reluctant to seek such services and therefore may need reassurance as to the confidentiality and possible efficacy of sessions. Family and work colleagues represent additional support opportunities, but the target might need prompting to think of them in these terms especially if s/he feels ashamed or guilty.

More enlightened Forces accept that b&h can, and will, occur even in the best of organisations. Unfortunately the organisations we are talking about here either don't want to know, or refuse to believe that bullying can ever be an issue. Elsewhere on this site there is guidance on building the business case for dealing with b&h, but first the organisation needs to be convinced that it has a problem.

Obviously the identity of individuals need to be protected in such a sensitive situation, but this should not stop the Rep gathering and collating information about the location and type of bullying behaviour that has been encountered. A pattern of complaints from one division may suggest a manager / senior with a people management skills problem, a pattern of complaints about a particular type of behaviour across the Force may suggest a wider issue of general management training. This is valuable evidence, but it may take many months to collect as it depends on officers having the courage and trust to raise the issue with their Reps. A quicker way would be to organise a Force-wide survey of Police Federation members. Now I know that there will be a huge sigh here as the prospect of yet another questionnaire is suggested, but, on the plus side I am talking about an existing questionnaire therefore no making up questions, and one that is FREE to use, explains how to interpret the findings, and is from a VERY reputable source: the Health and Safety Executive.

I am proposing that you use the HSE Stress Indicator Tool. I've pointed out the links between b&h and stress, and this questionnaire checks both. Your Force might be very anti the raising of issues related to b&h, but is probably less threatened by the notion of Stress, and Stress Management. This is your way to highlight the relationship between the two, and to tackle both. The data produce a traffic light result: green, everything is fine; amber, be vigilant; and, red, action required now. One case of bullying triggers a red light.

Obviously running a survey will involve the JBB is a certain amount of work, but it is worth checking whether other Force employee representative bodies, e.g. UNISON, would be prepared to co-operate and include their members. This will not only lighten the workload, but is also likely to strengthen the argument for intervention.

Dr. K.M.McIvor © 2013

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