Our common right to be treated with dignity

Brendan Martin

In his blog for Equality, Diversity and Human Rights Week, Brendan Martin, founder and director of Public World talks about his experiences of facilitating discussions to combat bullying, and the need to redefine what we mean by robust management.

 When I was asked last year to help a hospital diagnose a bullying problem, little did I know it would be one of the most humbling experiences of my life.

 It brought me face to face with the pain caused by workplace relationships in which mutual respect has eroded. Some let the tears flow as they told their stories, but I could see the hurt in dry eyes too.

 I won’t name the trust concerned, although I think its board should take pride in an initiative that enabled a succession of brave women and men to be heard, leading to action.

It deserves credit for responding as it did to isolated but persistent complaints, despite its staff survey results being better than average on the bullying and harassment score.

Although the problems I found were real and serious, they existed in a wider context. The hospital had a strong culture of inclusion and was devoted to serving its diverse community.

The trust also welcomed the approach we took, which was designed to build confidence. We set up a special telephone number and online survey, both completely independent of the hospital, and I was free to go anywhere and talk to anyone.

I was also provided with a private room to meet those who felt safe enough to share their concerns on hospital premises (which some didn’t). I learned on day one not to arrive there without tissues.

I was honoured that maintenance and administrative staff, as well as nurses and doctors, felt able to share their accounts, and their grief, with a complete stranger.

My terms of reference tasked me to distinguish between bullying and ‘robust management’, and of course that is an important distinction, legally, ethically and in terms of appropriate responses.

But the distinction should not obscure the importance too of the common features between some management styles and bullying, or how one can fertilise the other.

Most of the stories I heard did not satisfy the ACAS definition of bullying and harassment, broad though that is but all revealed a deeper truth. For care and compassion to thrive, our everyday relationships must be rooted in awareness of shared humanity and commitment to all that implies.

The national staff survey shows that women are slightly more likely to suffer abuse compared to the average. Black and minority ethnic staff are significantly more likely, lesbian, gay or bisexual staff much more likely, and disabled staff very much more likely.

Those disgraceful dimensions of unfairness must be tackled explicitly, but in ways that also address a wider problem - the use of hierarchical or professional rank to excuse denial of dignity to others, regardless of ‘protected characteristics’.

Let’s redefine robust management to mean building resilient workplace communities, in which difficult conversations about necessary change strengthen rather than weaken our common right to always be treated with dignity.

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