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Highland Council bosses 'should hang their heads in shame' over bullying failures

By Scott Maclennan

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Allegations of bullying at Highland Council were not addressed in a recent survey.
Allegations of bullying at Highland Council were not addressed in a recent survey.

Highland Council “just does not want to even acknowledge” that problems with bullying exist at the local authority after an internal survey failed to address issues of workplace harassment.

Councillor Andrew Jarvie – a staunch critic of the local authority – believes that by not asking staff in the wake of a damaging external report is effectively an attempt to “bulldoze those concerns.”

But the local authority’s head of people Elaine Barrie defended the internal survey saying that it was not directly comparable to the report by BMG that emerged after a long delay last October.

The results of independent firm BMG’s survey revealed that of 5002 responses, at least 500 members of staff said they had been the victim of bullying or harassment – prompting calls for action.

One whistleblower who spoke to us said: “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.”

One of the points made at the time was the council was sending out its own wellbeing survey, to take the temperature of staff but it did not ask any questions about whether staff had been bullied.

The council was asked why the survey did not contain a question inquiring whether individual members of staff were bullied or harassed or not – particularly as doubt was cast by officials on the claims made in the BMG report.

Not directly comparable

Ms Barrie said: “The wellbeing survey conducted in Dec 23/Jan 24 was a survey on staff wellbeing issues and there was a question on ‘When I experience difficulties with mental health, managing stress, work relationships, bullying or harassment issues, I know where to seek support’. 61 per cent of our staff responded ‘always or often’ and we will continue to promote where staff can raise issues/seek support for these issues.

“We have published the responses to the Wellbeing Survey Report as soon as possible. We are also committed as stated in the report, to the next steps to explore the survey results on a services basis and to develop actions with trade union colleagues to improve staff wellbeing.

“We are also revising the Wellbeing Strategy and the responses from staff will help inform any changes needed to the strategy.

“As the wellbeing survey and the BMG survey are different in content they are not therefore directly comparable.”

Hang their heads in shame

Cllr Jarvie was scathing in his response to the report that went to the corporate resources committee saying council bosses should "hang their heads in shame."

He said: “There is no one thing which gives a better example of why the Highland Council is facing comprehensive failure than its response to the initial staff survey which was done by an external independent company, which revealed significant levels of bullying concerns and serious issues of staff morale.

“By the council running another survey itself, it has effectively said ‘we don’t like the answer you gave us, please give us the one we want.’ This is why the council is doomed.

“Is it any wonder the turnout in this survey was only 15 per cent, when staff couldn’t complete it completely anonymously? Ten per cent of council staff previously reported concerns of workplace bullying, to get the truth it is beyond vital staff can report their experiences without the fear of repercussions for speaking the truth.

“So no doubt when this comes to committee, all the usual councillors who are nothing more than pathetic apologists for council failures and complicit in cover up after cover up, will stand up and herald the good news that everything is excellent in the Highland Council.

“Just what message does this send to all those staff who feel they have had no voice for years, finally tell us councillors what is really going on in the organisation, to just bulldoze those concerns?

“Even worse, bullying, the one major theme which came from the initial survey, was completely absent from the council’s own survey. This council just does not want to even acknowledge the problems which exist, which is a desperate shame because the solutions are so, so simple.

"All those who have pressed ahead with this new survey and are ignoring the most valid one we have ever had should hang their heads in shame.”

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