Others could take a leaf out of Bazley’s book

The report into Russell McVeagh is a model of frankness. It would be good to see similar acts of frankness elsewhere, like in the public sector, writes Dr Geoff Plimmer 

COMMENT: Dame Margaret Bazley’s report into law firm Russell McVeagh is a vivid illustration of how sexual harassment and bullying in organisations occur, how organisations are reluctant to face up to these behaviours, how human resources (HR) departments and executives are so often out of their depth in dealing with them, and how both behaviours could be handled so much better. 

Although there have been criticisms of the Bazley report for having unanswered questions, or for blaming alcohol, overall it is a model of frankness in showing how an organisation works, and how sexual harassment and bullying play out in offices. It would be good to see similar acts of frankness elsewhere, such as in the public sector, when organisations fail their stakeholders. The Russell McVeagh issue mainly concerns sexual harassment, but the report refers to the concept of bullying more than 50 times and identifies bullying as a problem in the organisation. Bullying and harassment are both abusive workplace behaviours, and often occur together. 

 Hierarchies protect weak leaders as well as bullies and harassers. 

In the jargon, Russell McVeagh has the structures and processes of a high bullying environment – a moderately large, probably bureaucratic organisation, where decision-making is slow and the individual is less exposed. This means perpetrators are less likely to be caught and sanctioned. It also has large power imbalances and a competitive environment, all known precursors of bullying. What’s more is that it handled the incidents poorly, with serious mishandling by HR and weak leadership (in part a function of the partnership model). Hierarchies protect weak leaders as well as bullies and harassers. 

HR made numerous mistakes. Part of this may be that bullying and harassment are inherently difficult to deal with, and many HR people lack experience in dealing with it. Without the benefit of hindsight the mistakes would have been easy to make. HR people in organisations also often lack clear power and authority but are expected to clean up messes made by others. They often do this by instinctively siding with managers – often the perpetrators – rather than dealing with it in a balanced way. This parallels their role in other matters. For instance, in Russell McVeagh’s recruitment, partners controlled the process while HR provided administrative support. HR was effectively trained to accept the priorities and biases of partners rather than provide any real expertise, such as ensuring non-discriminatory and merit-based promotion. 

HR staff often seek greater respect from other employees, but how they handle bullying and harassment can lead them to be understandably disliked and mistrusted. Hopefully one of the outcomes of the Russell McVeagh affair will be reflection and improvement by the HR community of how it deals with these issues. 

The Bazley report is one of the few public airings of too frequent bungling by the HR community. It identifies the following failings by HR: a lack of meaningful support and care for the interns; being over emotional with the interns; referral to an insufficiently objective counsellor (an ex-employee in Russell McVeagh’s HR team); not clearly communicating what was happening; not following the (inadequate) harassment policy; not triggering an external investigation; and not providing sufficient useful guidance to the affected people. The interns were offered “whatever” they needed, but like many distressed people were unable to assess their needs. One of the lessons is that HR needs robust processes and clearly-defined roles and duties to deal with the power and politics that often accompany bullying and harassment allegations.  

Abusive and other poor personal behaviours are often markers of wider problems – they are the canary in the coal mine.

An effective response to bullying and harassment is about more than responding to allegations once they occur, through processes like pastoral care and investigations. The Bazley report makes a number of good recommendations about prevention. One is compulsory training, development and assessment of management capability. Making it compulsory is wise, as the people who need it most tend to avoid it. Bazley adds in tighter requirements for promotion, such as demonstrated people management skills through methods such as more meaningful use of 360 appraisals. She also makes good recommendations around better gender equality, more collaboration and more voice for young people. 

Finally, the Bazley report seems to recognise that bullying can be built in to how work is done. It talks about excessive hours, a work hard, play hard culture, and gives the example of junior staff having to wait until 6pm to have work allocated, and then be expected to complete it by the morning of the next working day. The report acknowledges this might be because of workload – the usual excuse of out-of-their-depth managers who can’t delegate, or need to show power. Another view is it demonstrates how work-related bullying is intertwined with personal bullying (and sometimes harassment). Commendably, the report recommends that junior lawyers be compensated for overtime. Hopefully, this will pressure more senior lawyers to lift their competence and general behaviour. 

Many people have pointed out these problems exist in other law firms too. Although the details and severity of abusive behaviours varies, there are also problems beyond the legal sector. 

The public service, for example, has high rates of abusive and other poor behaviours, including at senior levels, and increasingly apparent performance problems. In recent history, there has been the purported manhandler Katrina Bach of the now defunct Department of Building and Housing; Roger Sutton, accused of sexual harassment at the also defunct Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority; and fraudster Joan Harrison of the Ministry of Transport, who apparently forced whistleblowers out of the organisation. Arguably, Nigel Murray, of Waikato District Health Board, with a “top down” and “command and control” management style, as well as problems with expenses, could be included in this list.  

Abusive and other poor personal behaviours are often markers of wider problems – they are the canary in the coal mine. Senior managers and governors need to deal with them beyond seeing them only as a PR risk. Kudos to Margaret Bazley for her report, and Russell McVeagh for finally coming clean. 

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