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Does Highland Council have a major bullying problem on its hands?

By Scott Maclennan

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Highland Council may have a serious bullying issue.
Highland Council may have a serious bullying issue.

NHS Highland was stunned by its own bullying crisis when it first emerged in 2018 and spent years in denial about it.

The Sturrock report finally confirmed what everyone already knew – the health board had, some would say still has, a problem.

Since then it has made serious and significant improvements not least through the Healing Process whereby survivors of bullying could gain restitution.

In all 340 people registered for that service and 272 progressed to hearings.

Is history repeating itself at Highland Council now?

By its own figures, 10 per cent of respondents to a staff survey – at least 500 people – at Highland Council claimed that they were bullied.

With a response rate of 47 per cent it is safe to say that could only rise if the other 53 per cent spoke out.

If the 10 per cent rate was sustained then we are talking about well over 1000 people who have been bullied – figures that dwarf NHS Highland's problems.

Councillors shock

The reaction of councillors to the staff survey was largely shock. Some tried hard to formulate a way to speak about it and some failed.

Inverness city leader Ian Brown was a union rep at NHS Highland seemed to grasp the situation clearer than most – he said people are suffering.

“Any bullying claims at Highland Council are obviously not acceptable,” he said. “Say it is 10 per cent – that is just a statistic but behind it are real people, people we all probably know.

“Certainly for an adult it is extremely difficult to take it any further, because if you are bullied you cannot go to your Mum, you are on your own, you are embarrassed, feel awkward, your confidence is gone.

“So we have got to be in a position that we can give staff that encouragement and that confidence to go to HR to report – because that is the only way that it can be dealt with.”

Appropriate channels

Chief executive Derek Brown started work just 39 days ago and has already had to deal with budget blackholes, uproar over a failed school building programme, the recent floods and now this.

But his suggestion at the start of the debate the "appropriate channels" are in place offered some comfort to councillors but staff the Courier previously talked to would disagree.

“If there are issues around things that people need to tell us,” he said at the start of the debate. “Then we do have a whistleblowing policy and we do have appropriate channels for the addressment of harassment, bullying and discrimination.

“And we also have a process by which we go through to properly evaluate those things and make sure we take appropriate action, a due process if you like.”


The council's head of people Elaine Barrie noted the huge difference between bullying claims made in internal surveys as compared to the independent survey.

Councillor Andew Jarvie, however, was not surprised, he said: “I recall about two or three years ago the GMB surveyed their members and 15-20 per cent in Highland Council reported bullying so the numbers were only higher so there is something going wrong.”

So how can the council tackle the issue if staff seem unwilling to address it internally?

It was unclear from the meeting but more staff engagement is due to take place, which some members found reassuring – whether staff have the same view remains to be seen.

'We must root out that nastiness at the very, very beginning'

Andrew MacKintosh summered it up by saying whatever happens the onus is on the council to fix the issue.

“The success or failure of this survey will depend on the changes that it makes, which may take a considerable period of time," he said. "The one that really bothers me is the bullying one.

“Bullying is different from inappropriate behaviour, you can behave inappropriately – as I have done myself occasionally – just because you are having a bad day or you are not feeling well.

“Bullying and harassment is another step forward and there is a nastiness to that and we must root that out at the very, very beginning.”

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