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1 in 10 Highland Council staff claim in survey to have been bullied

By Scott Maclennan

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Trouble at HQ as staff survey points to leadership issues. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Trouble at HQ as staff survey points to leadership issues. Picture: James Mackenzie.

One in 10 staff at Highland Council say they have suffered bullying or harassment at work.

In the first staff survey of its kind carried out for seven years 10,700 surveys were sent out by independent firm BMG resulting in 5002 responses, with at least 500 members of staff claiming to have been the victim of bullying.

Staff were asked if they had been bullied or harassed at work, with staff who answered “yes” subsequently asked to further elaborate.

BMG said: “Intimidation, verbal aggression as well as negative micromanagement were reported as causes of bullying and harassment.”

The most commonly cited examples of bullying or harassing behaviours was intimidation, verbal or written aggression (eg shouting, making threats, sending aggressive emails), with 238 separate examples given.

After that it was ‘negative micromanagement’ with 218 claims followed by being ‘ignored, excluded, marginalised, treated less favourably to others’, with 204 claims.

There were also 25 claims of physical assault and five claims of sexual harassment which could range from comments or jokes to unwelcome sexual advances, touching or assault.

Other examples of bullying and intimidation given included spreading gossip or making false accusations; being publicly humiliated; being undermined; removal of responsibilities; unconstructive criticism; and changing expectations.

Most of those who said they were bullied or harassed claimed it came from a colleague in the same team, section or service area or from a line manager.

But there were also 13 claims of elected councillors bullying staff.

A GMB Union Highland representative said: “GMB Highland Council branch have noted their concern with senior management in relation to 1 in 10 of Highland Council employees reporting having experienced bullying in their work lives.

“We look to the council to ensure that their staff across the board do not indulge in this type of behaviour with their colleagues and where it is identified, respond effectively to any such event.

“We anticipate and look forward to being further involved in working with the council in ensuring that staff can easily raise concerns of this nature readily and be confident of their concern being responded to appropriately, as no-one should be harassed and unduly oppressed in their workplace.”

Alleged bullying issues resurface

Raising possible questions about how full a picture elected members might have been expected to receive of the survey findings, comments made by council human resources staff appeared to have been mistakenly left in throughout a version published on the council website on Friday, indicating suggested changes including the removal of a table noting the number of staff claiming to have been bullied.

It is not the first time the council has been at the heart of a bullying storm. Back in 2021 the Courier spoke with whistleblowers who spoke about “institutionalised bullying.”

From a range of teams and departments speaking anonymously and supported by the GMB union they said they were subject to abuse over months and years including managers behaving in a “bullying, condescending and aggressive manner” and using “intimidatory language and insults” underpinned by a council-wide “culture of secrecy”.

A Highland Council spokeswoman said at the time that the local authority took allegations of bullying “very seriously” but that in an organisation of more than 10,000 staff “it would be surprising not to have any issues”.

A confidential contact and telephone helpline and email address had been set up for staff to raise issues.

She added: “The council’s position is clear: ‘The council will not tolerate harassment or victimisation by employees or workers under its control and will take appropriate action to protect those who raise a concern either during its investigation; and/or subsequent to investigation.’”

The recent survey, which will be considered by full council on Thursday, also raised issues over staff confidence in the council’s leadership.

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