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Bully for Ofsted. But Tolley law does for Dom!
Two recent stories in the news have coincided in an unexpected way
The head of Ofsted and the (former) Deputy Prime Minister have both been running departments that generate a culture of fear amongst hardworking staff. They have both defended language that they have sometimes used to describe the work of others – “woeful”, “inadequate” and “totally useless” – but only one of them is out of a job, branded as a bully. And it’s not the one whose department is under scrutiny following the suicide of a key worker.
We have a problem of irreconcilable objectives. In today’s Britain, it is generally accepted that no one should have to work in an environment that fills them with fear. But, when a worker’s role affects the public, we expect incompetence to be called out and dealt with – especially (but not only) when we pay for those jobs out of our taxes. That is bound to be scary for the workers being judged. Which is one heck of a lot of people. After all, how many of us have the luxury of working in a role which affects no one else and in which no one ever comments on what we do?
It is more than 50 years since The Peter Principle first told us that “every employee tends to rise to [their] level of incompetence”. That would suggest that there is a considerable amount of incompetence out there (at least amongst men because the quote was actually “his” level of incompetence). The originator of the principle, Laurence J Peter, asserted that the insight was “the key to an understanding of the whole structure of civilization.” He also claimed that he was joking, but I think we all know that many of the best jokes make a really serious point.
It is, of course, perfectly possible to point out someone’s errors, omissions and shortcomings without bullying them. It can be done with kindness and encouragement. But that is a skill in itself. Not a lot of managers have mastered it. And even those who have acquired it (or were lucky enough to be born with it) will sometimes be too hurried, too harried or just too exhausted to activate it every time it is needed.
Most people would say that bullying requires intent. If a manager is trying to be informative, rather than nasty, they are not a bully. But the report into the behaviour of Dominic Raab, the (now former) Deputy Prime Minister, said otherwise:
“conduct may … constitute bullying … whether or not the perpetrator is aware or intends that the conduct is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting.”
To be fair to the report’s author, Adam Tolley KC, he was citing a High Court judgment, rather than expressing his own opinion.
But, regardless of who is responsible for this interpretation of “bullying”, it is a problem. Sometimes a piece of work is useless. Quite literally, it is not good enough to be used. And some people are intimidated by the thought that someone very senior might think that their work isn’t good enough. Even people in senior roles of their own can be intimidated by someone more senior finding their work inadequate. The Tolley report tells that was the case with civil servants who were senior enough to submit work directly to Dominic Raab when he was Foreign Secretary.
We also have the tragic case of Ruth Perry, a head teacher who took her own life waiting for an Ofsted report that downgraded her school to “Inadequate”. Ms Perry’s family believes the anxiety and stress following the inspection led to Ms Perry's suicide. On Sunday, Ofsted’s chief inspector acknowledged to the BBC that there is a culture of fear around school inspections.
There is now an active debate around the one-word assessments used by Ofsted to headline a more detailed report. But changing the wording – or lengthening it – won’t change the underlying reality that, people do sometimes find themselves in roles which call for their work to be assessed and the assessment cannot always be favourable.
I have not seen, and would not expect to see, any calls for the Ofsted Inspector to face action for their assessment of Ms Perry’s school. But, doesn’t the Tolley report mean that, if it were a school governor who was the first to tell a head teacher that the school is “inadequate” under their leadership, the governor could legitimately be labelled a bully?
21st Century Britain needs to find a way to support people so that they don’t feel intimidated by the professional judgement of others (or can handle those judgements). True bullying should never be acceptable. But blaming a person who makes a professional and well-intentioned assessment as part of their own job is not a recipe for a successful country.
This week, the UK government has faced widespread criticism for not evacuating its citizens quickly enough from Sudan. It is the responsibility of the Foreign Office to arrange the evacuation. Lives are at stake. I don’t know if the criticism is justified. I just note that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (to give it its full title) is the department in which Dominic Raab was found to have been a bully for describing (some) work as “woeful”.
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