Priti Patel allegations provide guidance to workplace investigators
The Report on bullying allegations involving the Home Secretary provided by Sir Alex Allen to 10 Downing Street last month not only gives a fascinating glimpse into the complexities of workplace dynamics when senior elected officials are involved. Of key interest to those involved in workplace relations should be the need for the Report to deal effectively with what appears to be genuine allegations from civil servants arising within their employment.
While the high-powered nature of Sir Allen’s Report involving a senior Government minister reporting directly to the Prime Minister makes the matter sensational and newsworthy, a deeper examination of the actual facts reveals a number of issues which are often replicated in workplaces across the UK. These in turn provide interested employers with tips on how to better manage their workplaces in a respectful and legal manner. Some notable learning points from this matter include:
(1) Choice of investigator
Any investigation of workplace bullying allegations requires an impartial and independent investigator and it appears Sir Allen was able to command the respect he needed from those making the allegations, the wider civil service as well as the Prime Minister to some extent.
However, by rejecting the outcomes and findings of Sir Allen’s Report in so public a manner, the Prime Minister has probably provided more than ample means for the content of the Report to be attacked.
Our experience shows that a tightly worded initial Terms of Reference reduces the scope for disagreement to take place when a Report is handed over.
(2) Relevant evidence needs to be obtained
Relevant evidence to be obtained by any such investigation should include not only details of the alleged incidents from complainants, but details of any previous reports and action taken to remind the Home Secretary of her obligations in the workplace. This is particularly important in bullying matters which generally involve repeated conduct of a similar or like nature which would breach the Ministerial Guidelines applying to all Ministers.
In the current case, it appears there was evidence of ‘forceful expression’ such as shouting and yelling on occasions, but that disagreement is still evident on what, if any, prior warnings or advice had been provided to the Home Secretary about her conduct with staff members. Reports indicate that former top civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam insists Ms Patel was "advised" on a number of occasions about the need to treat staff with respect i.e. “As early as August 2019, the month after her appointment, she was advised that she must not shout and swear at staff…I advised her on a number of further occasions between September 2019 and February 2020 about the need to treat staff with respect." However, he was never asked to contribute to the investigation, which then concludes there was "no evidence that she (Priti Patel) was aware of the impact of her behaviour, and no feedback was given to her at the time".
Given the critical nature of such evidence, our experience shows the need for these details to be thoroughly reviewed and set out in explicit detail in a Report.
(3) Meaningful apology
The televised and reported ‘apology’ from the Home Secretary appears to have focused on her conduct towards civil servants being ‘unintentional’. However, our experience shows the value and extent of an apology to reinstate good working relationships in the workplace is inversely proportional to the number of provisos inserted into the apology. If the Home Secretary had truly wanted to provide an apology empowering a resumption to respectful working relationships, she may have been better to include words indicating she acknowledges the impact of her conduct on staff (without the need to say if this conduct was intentional or unintentional), has been able to learn from the incident and looks forward to working with her staff in a respectful manner.
ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures provides handy guidance for the principles and steps necessary for a valid and justifiable investigation into staff grievances of bullying and other inappropriate conduct.