Bullies too often go unchecked – and not just in Westminster

Gaby Hinsliff
‘It’s disappointing that Westminster couldn’t bring itself to set an example here; that MPs fell over themselves to protect John Bercow … Naked expediency is never a good look.’ Photograph: Dan Kitwood/AFP/Getty Images

The shouting was audible from the end of the corridor, but it was only when I got close that it was clear what was actually happening. A well-known broadcaster, who shall not be named despite richly deserving it, was bawling at an obviously frightened junior researcher for something that seemingly wasn’t her fault. Walking into the whole thing as a studio guest was as oddly embarrassing as stumbling into a marital row by accident, but asking around later I learned that it apparently happened all the time. The presenter had a reputation not merely for being a bully but for not particularly caring who saw her throw her weight around. (Yes, it was a woman. Female bosses can be appalling bullies, just as men can.) It was years ago, I was young and fairly junior myself, and didn’t know what to do, except go on air and awkwardly pretend it hadn’t happened. But this week, reading Dame Laura Cox’s report on bullying and harassment in parliament, it came back to me.

Unlike groping and grabbing, the odd thing about workplace bullying is that it’s not necessarily secretive; indeed, sometimes humiliating the unlucky target in front of everyone is half the point. Word soon spreads, and no doubt every staffer in Westminster could have had a shrewd guess at the identity of the unnamed MPs Cox describes as “serial offenders”. So why hasn’t anyone done anything until now?

The easy answer is either that it’s all John Bercow’s fault as Speaker, or else that putting a bunch of power-hungry people into a culture of near-obsequious deference in a building that looks like Downton Abbey was always going to end badly.

But the more complicated explanation might be that for years nobody did anything for the same reason nobody does anything in all the other offices, factories and institutions up and down the land where similar things happen. And it’s that bullies are exhausting. They frighten or wear down everyone forced to deal with them and once they’ve stamped and shouted and intimidated their way to a senior level it’s often easier for HR to work around them – move their chosen targets to a different department, discourage formal complaints, shuffle things under the carpet – than to confront them. What makes the parliamentary bullying scandal so irritating is that the row has become all about Bercow and what his (arguably now overdue) resignation might or might not mean for the parliamentary handling of Brexit. Yet the bullying in Westminster is so resonant for the reason that this problem is near-universal in working life.

More than a quarter of Britons say they’ve been bullied at work, according to the TUC. It’s not necessarily illegal, unless it crosses a fairly blurred legal line into harassment. To complain about it still feels mortifyingly snowflake-like. (Although anyone thinking this is about entitled millennials unable to take criticism can think again; the TUC found those most likely to complain of being victimised were aged between 45 and 59, an age at which many people begin to worry about being pushed out to pasture.) Even the word “bullying” makes us think of kids in playgrounds, things adults should be able to handle without running to the teacher. In plenty of working environments, including Fleet Street newsrooms when I started out, shouting and screaming and threatening and belittling was so completely normalised that everyone took it for granted. It was years before it dawned on me that making people cry or sweat with fear is not in fact a non-negotiable element of getting a newspaper out.

But if there is a weakness here, it’s not among the bullied. It’s in managers so terrible at managing that they can’t think of any other way to motivate staff than terrifying the life out of them; people who seemingly don’t believe they can command respect except by lashing out at people not in a position to hit back. And the same is true of senior managers who pass the buck when a bullying allegation is brought to them. They’re just avoiding doing any actual managing, often at immense unseen cost not only to the personal lives of those targeted but to the company’s precious bottom line, as talented people move on to work somewhere they won’t be routinely sworn at.

So yes, it’s disappointing that Westminster couldn’t bring itself to set an example here; that MPs fell over themselves to protect Bercow for fear no other Speaker could guarantee them a meaningful vote on Brexit. Naked expediency is never a good look. But let’s not pretend politics is the only industry in which the wellbeing of staff is routinely sacrificed for a perceived greater good. One of the few positive things to come out of a year of disturbing stories is that workplace sexual harassment has now been dragged right out into the open. The next step surely is rethinking how we deal with behaviour that is, if anything, even more common, and can make victims’ lives just as miserable, yet has been hiding in plain sight for too long.

• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist