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HIGHLAND COUNCIL BULLYING: Staff speak about abuse fed by 'institutional secrecy'

By Scott Maclennan

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Council staff past and present have been speaking confidentially to The Inverness Courier.
Council staff past and present have been speaking confidentially to The Inverness Courier.

HIGHLAND Council whistle-blowers have claimed their lives are being made a misery by bullying within an organisation where abuse, they say, is fed by "institutional secrecy."

Local authority staff past and present have shared accounts of their experiences with The Inverness Courier after we invited anyone who believed they had experience bullying while working with the council to get in touch.

That invitation in itself was prompted by a survey conducted by the local authority which suggested as many as one in 10 respondents – equivalent to at least 500 employees – believed themselves to have been the victim of bullying or harassment of one form or another.

Each of those who has shared their story with the Courier so far has done so on the condition of anonymity, though each individual has personally identified themselves to us.

Those who have shared their stories talk about a range of impacts on their mental and physical health as well as on employment prospects and their personal finances.

Alleged bullying behaviour includes claims of verbal intimidation, being isolated or excluded within the workplace and being overloaded with work.

There are also allegations of a “culture of secrecy” around the issue within the council, with bosses allegedly protecting other bosses, bullying worsening when grievances are raised and processes never being concluded.

Depression, anxiety and panic attacks

One whistle-blower said: “I could not leave the house for months because even as an adult I was scared out of my wits in case I would meet any of the people who were bullying me, or anyone else from work.

“I was feeling so fragile that I actually did not want to live any more, certainly not like this, and I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel – all I could picture was the twisted face of anger literally screaming in my face.”

They added: “I experienced poor mental health, depression, anxiety and panic attacks and physical symptoms that were triggered largely because of the stress of it all.”

Another whistle-blower who identified themselves as a relatively senior staff member said of their experience: “The bullying mostly took place during one-to-one in Teams calls which meant there was no evidence and made it difficult to challenge.

“I would describe the manager’s demeanour and words on these occasions as threatening.

“They would make mountains out of molehills and deliberately exaggerate small issues. They would also ask for pieces of work to be undertaken which were unnecessary, in order to waste your time and underline their authority.”

Asked if there was a culture of institutional secrecy at the council compounding the problem of bullying and harassment they said: “Yes, I would. The issues are well known to Highland Council and go back years and span the individual working in more than one post.”

'Traits of institutional gas-lighting'

For another employee everything changed after a mysterious meeting: “I didn’t see the manager in the office for a month. I was working in the office more and more on my own, and emails to me from the manager almost stopped.

“As time went on, I wondered if I had done something wrong, but I knew that I hadn’t. The manager would say they were busy or that they had the decorators in so had to work from home, but after a while they moved their things out of the office with little explanation.”

They said: “I have witnessed first-hand how I believe the manager communicates. They display traits of institutional gas-lighting.”

According to another staff member near daily bullying got to the point where they “cried at home and at work”.

The behaviour was addressed with the individual concerned, they said, but nothing changed, as they said they were told the person perpetrating the bullying behaviour was themselves suffering from mental health problems and there was nothing the council could do about it. While they said they felt sorry for the individual involved they felt forced to leave their employment because of the situation: “I chose the quiet way to leave after working for the council for decades,” they said.

Managers protected?

Another whistle-blower said of the processes to address allegations of bullying: “It is a very unfair process and I have seen a number of colleagues leave over the past few years as a result of one manager. I love my job but will not be forced out by these dishonest people.

“The informal discussions are there only to make sure they can cover anything you expose as a failing or genuine reason to be aggrieved, then cover it up with denials at each level. It’s shocking.

“I heard that if, for example, you take a grievance out against a manager, managers above automatically protect them.”

A spokesperson for Highland Council said: “Bullying and harassment is not acceptable in any environment.

"Such behaviour is taken very seriously by the Highland Council and it is important that staff report any allegations and experiences.

"This can be done via HR or through a trade union.”

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