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Exclusive: Highland Council employees blow the whistle on 'institutionalised bullying' alleging harassment and intimidation, claims supported by a GMB Union survey that found 59 per cent of respondents raised concerns about bullying

By Scott Maclennan

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Highland Council headquarters.
Highland Council headquarters.

SHOCKING accusations of “institutionalised bullying” have been levelled at Highland Council.

In an echo of the problems that have beset NHS Highland in recent years that the health board is still trying to overcome, a whistle-blower group supported by the GMB union has spoken exclusively to the Courier, detailing a litany of harassment, mistreatment and abuse they say is not being properly addressed by the local authority.

The allegations have been made in confidence because the whistle-blowers could face dismissal under the terms of the council’s whistle-blowing policy, which prohibits going to the media – even after internal processes appear to have failed them.

The group, from across a range of teams and departments, say 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” to undermine and belittle staff; the deliberate withholding of information vital to their roles and inappropriate sharing of information about people’s private lives, all underpinned by a council-wide “culture of secrecy”.

The impact on physical and mental health has been devastating and includes anxiety and depression.

One individual said their health had been seriously compromised after they were repeatedly lied to and about, ignored and isolated and set up for failure by being misinformed or given only partial information about their duties.

Signed off work and suffering with depression, anxiety and weight loss they said they eventually had to pay for counselling.

Another said: “You only received limited information and then when you produce the task it gets picked to bits.

“It seems like a deliberate tactic to undermine you and then say: ‘See, I told you they shouldn’t have been involved’.”

Accusations have also been made of management in different departments actively collaborating to suppress complaints in what whistle-blowers branded a “culture of enablement”.

One said: “When you voice your problem, they are all on you.”

Another who raised matters through the council’s grievance procedure said they felt it had made little difference.

“I felt the council is only interested in their reputation and not interested at all in the health and wellbeing of their staff,” they said.

The whistle-blowers are being supported by the GMB which has shared the results of a recent survey of members currently working for the council.

Of around 100 people who responded, 59 per cent said they had raised concerns about the behaviour of management or colleagues, particularly in education, social care and environment.

Of those, 53 per cent said they felt their concerns had not been taken seriously and 69 per cent said they did not feel informed through the process.

A total of 69 per cent were not satisfied with the outcome of investigations.

GMB Scotland organiser John McCartney has called for a panel of Highland councillors and members of the council’s executive team to be organised to hear the allegations in full.

He said: “GMB were approached by a group of members who had similar experiences when raising concerns around bullying, harassment and mistreatment.

“The cases showed a disregard from management and HR in following the correct procedures and supporting those who raised the complaints.

“Having met with council officers, we are calling for action in the strongest possible terms so that employee harassment does not get worse.

“Our objective is finding a resolution for our members.”

A Highland Council spokeswoman said: “The council takes any allegations of bullying very seriously.

“Highland Council is an organisation of over 10,000 staff and within this context it would be surprising not to have any issues and indeed we would want staff to feel they can come forward if they have a problem. We are aware of a very small number of cases and these are being worked through within our policies.

“We have recently reviewed and strengthened our whistle-blowing policy which now includes a confidential contact and telephone helpline and email address where staff can raise issues and we report concerns through the council’s internal audit function.

“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 grievance policy is currently being reviewed and bullying and harassment contacts across all council departments have been trained to support and direct staff to appropriate routes to address their issues.

“We are aware of a survey being undertaken by GMB, however findings have not been shared with the council as yet. When the findings have been shared with us, we will work with the union to address any issues that are raised.

“The council has introduced regular staff and trade union engagement activities. More mediators are also being trained to enable issues to be addressed at an early stage and training is available/being developed to assist managers with performance management.”

Related Story – NHS Highland is ‘making progress on bullying’ according to HR boss Fiona Hogg who says in the worst cases staff could be fired in a move welcomed by one victim

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