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Priti Patel and the Ministerial Code Report

Bullying at work is something that doesn’t just impact the people involved. It also impacts the way that people see the Company employing these individuals. We want to know that the Company’s we buy things from, or use, take things like this seriously and would never allow bullying to continue.

Over the weekend our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, stood by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, after a report was given to him about the allegations made against her for bullying. But what does this mean for the general public?

The background

In March 2020, Phillip Rutnam, the former Home Office permanent secretary resigned. His resignation was due to him making allegations against Priti Patel for bullying. He described her behaviour as a “vicious and orchestrated campaign” against him after he says he raised issues with the way that civil servants were being treated.

Fast-forward to November and the investigation into his allegations has been completed. Over the weekend, the Report into bullying claims found its way from the Prime Ministers desk into the public domain.

The report

The Prime Minister hasn’t released the full report, but Sir Alex Allen, Whitehall’s independent advisor on ministerial standards, released his own statement about the report.

He’s said that Priti Patel “has not consistently met the high standards required by the Ministerial Code of treating her civil servants with consideration and respect. Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals. To that extent her behaviour has been in breach of the Ministerial Code, even if unintentionally.”

The statement itself is quite damning and you would think that from this, there would be serious action needed. However, Boris Johnson has taken no action against her, not asked her to resign, and has appeared to have ignored the findings of the report. Alongside his response, other Conservative MPs have defended her over the weekend and said that she has to be strong and decisive.

The ministerial code

In simple terms, this is a document that tells all ministers what sort of behaviour is expected from them. In our workplaces, this would be the code of conduct.

If a minister has been found to have broken the code, then normally they are expected to resign. Until now, there hasn’t been a case of a minister staying after they’ve been found to have broken these rules.

Intent and Impact – Banter or Bullying

Priti Patel has issued an apology, however the apology seems to be worded in such a way that it doesn’t acknowledge that she believes her actions were wrong. Her apology said that she was sorry IF her behaviour upset people and that she didn’t intend it to do so.

Alongside her statement was a lot of Conservative MPs emphasising that there was no intent and that it is “robust leadership” and reminding us that Priti Patel is doing a stressful job. While there is a need for robust leadership in the workplace, we need to be mindful that there is a line between being a strong leader and being a bully.

We also need to factor into the equation that it’s not about what the person intended, it’s about how the individual on the receiving end was impacted.

On face value, this decision appears to be the green light to the wrong kind of workplace behaviour. We wrote an article last year on bullying, which we feel is very relevant to this case. You can read it hereBanter or Bullying? – Effective HRM (

The definitions when it comes to bullying, don’t focus on the intent, but rather its impact. The statement from Sir Allen says that her behaviour did could be described as bullying, even if it was not intended.

The Good Employer

A good employer understands the definition of bullying. As a reminder, here it is:

“anything that causes someone to feel intimidated, upset, victimised or hurt in any way could be bullying if it happens on more than one occasion.”

As a good employer, you would follow up any accusations of bullying and ensure that all staff are aware of how their behaviour can impact other people. How someone feels after an event or incident is the important thing here.

Focussing on what the person intended rather than how it was received can show a significant lack of respect for the team or individual. Whilst a coercive leadership approach can work well in a crisis (think military operations), it should be by no means a universal approach. If an employer feels they need to be in coercive mode more often than not, maybe there’s something more fundamental going on.

With these things in mind, it is hard not to question the UK Government’s response to the report and try to analyse whether they would actually fit in to the “Good Employer” model. In addition to this, if the UK Government are saying that it’s the intent rather than the impact we need to focus on, are we now looking at an overhaul on the way we think about bullying?

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