Even Rishi Sunak’s fanciest footwork couldn’t save from getting egg all over his face over the conduct of Gavin Williamson. The “cartoon bully with a pet spider” in the words of Sir Keir Starmer managed about the length of a GP’s appointment in the role of minister without portfolio before allegations of his past conduct forced him out.
The prime minister initially expressed “great sadness” at Williamson’s resignation. Then he was “regretting appointing someone who has had to resign in these circumstances”. Sunak appears to have been attempting to break the record for the most weasel words in one answer with the latter, given at Prime Minister’s Questions. But perhaps the affair may have some worth beyond handing the panellists on Have I Got News for You with an easy punchline.
The conduct alleged of this “sad middle manager getting off on intimidating those beneath him” (Starmer again) was clearly disgraceful if the allegations are even partially true. But here’s the truth: it isn’t particularly uncommon in Westminster or Whitehall. And it isn’t particularly uncommon in workplaces generally.
One of the reasons for it being normalised in the corridors of power might be that it has been normalised in many of the places MPs work before getting elected. The prime minister is, for example, a former investment banker, one of the sizable number of Goldman Sachs alumni who go on to attain high political office.
Ruthless is perhaps the diplomatic way to describe the culture at a bank where juniors are expected to put in 100 hours plus a week for – sometimes – abusive superiors. A survey containing allegations of “inhumane” working conditions leaked last year, prompting a response from CEO David Sullivan who said he took the findings “very seriously” and was taking action to address them.
But this was hardly the first time conditions for youthful analysts at the bank had come under a harsh spotlight.
Greg Smith’s expose “Why I Left Goldman Sachs” was published in 2012 after his resignation from his position as head of the banks’ US equity derivatives sales business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It’s a toe-curling read. At the time, Goldman’s corporate communications chief responded to Smith’s allegations by saying: “We thoroughly reviewed Greg’s claims and found no evidence whatsoever to support them, We were hampered by the fact that there was little that was specific. We found no evidence that he raised concerns while at the bank but he did express concerns about his career.”
A summary was provided via the scathing letter he penned on his way out, which ended up getting published as a comment piece in the New York Times. Really, it’s a wonder why anyone would work there, even taking into account the very obvious monetary rewards available to those who survive the meat-grinder.
Goldman’s is far from unique. The City of London is a veritable font of psychopathy, bullying and generally miserable behaviour. Employment tribunals containing lurid allegations crop up every few months. It was only a few short years ago that the capital’s financial centre was reeling from a spate of deaths among its workers.
Those tribunals are also far from uncommon at law firms, which cough more than their fair share of in-house legal dust-ups with victimised current and former employees. Good business for the peers they hire to defend them, I suppose. Parliament is, of course, full of former lawyers.
An interesting feature of the reported behaviour of Williamson is that it involved him bullying not just a subordinate, but also a superior. The former was, obviously, the Ministry of Defence civil servant who reported the MP to a watchdog for allegedly telling them to “slit your throat” and “jump out of a window”.
The latter emerged via the publication of a text exchange with former chief whip Wendy Morton, who seems to have responded with some restraint in the face of Williamson’s childish fit of pique for not being invited to the Queen’s funeral.
It’s relatively rare for a boss to be on the receiving end, because of the way the power dynamics work. But it does happen. I have come across at least one incidence of someone subjected to a venomous campaign on the part of a subordinate. In the end, they left their job.
The sad fact is that the media, which doesn’t always have the best record when it comes to employee relations itself, is sometimes complicit in the toxic environment at Westminster. We talk of the “dark arts” of the whips and describe politics as a “dirty game” or a “ruthless business” almost approvingly. But this sets a terrible example. Is it any wonder that practises that literally drive people on the receiving end to drink are so commonplace?
Some would argue that if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen? Sorry, but no. The people who need to get out of the kitchen are the psychopaths who get a sick thrill out of victimising their colleagues; the “Snakes in Suits” who feature in Paul Babiak and Robert Hare’s book on how to deal with them.
There are a lot of them about. You might think the advent of remote working beyond Westminster would have helped to clip their wings. Except that it hasn’t done that. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the number of employment tribunal claims lodged citing bullying had reached a record level, having increased by 44 per cent in the space of just a year.
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An analysis, conducted by law firm Fox & Partners, put the number at 835 between March 2021 and March 2022 compared to 581 over the previous 12 months.
It described the findings as a “canary in the mine” moment, which is exactly how they should be viewed. Employers are clearly failing to address an alarming growth in toxic work cultures. More tribunals and bad publicity emanating from them is just one potential cost flowing from that. But a still more serious consequence is the loss of bright, talented employees who have no taste for being treated as doormats by shiny-suited thugs.
For every case that reaches a tribunal, there are hundreds – maybe thousands – more lurking under the surface. Mostly, people just quit.
The dismal quality of the British government lately might be because parliament and the civil service can’t attract and hold on to bright and talented people. Their departure from other fields hurts other employers, not to mention the wider economy.
If Williamson’s ousting sparks a long overdue conversation, perhaps he will finally have performed a genuine public service. And not before time.