Bullying and harassment in financial services, one of the sectors traditionally prone to power politics, is reported to be in sharp decline.
After warnings from the Financial Conduct Authority, the City watchdog, lawyers have pointed to a sudden fall in the number of whistleblower reports. Complaints about personal misconduct fell by 11% — down from 603 in 2020 to 537 in 2021.
The FCA has threatened to issue fines and even bans to senior managers found to be in breach of expected standards of behaviour. Similarly, managers who don’t deal with problems being raised by their line reports could face punishment.
In response, many financial services businesses have introduced mandatory training on bullying and harassment awareness, how to identify and call out inappropriate behaviours.
The decline in reported cases of problems has been welcomed by the sector as proof that the actions being taken have started to have an impact, helping to address the issue of toxic workplaces. But what have really been the effects of FCA pressure and a tightening up of formal processes?
Something about the figures don’t add up. When an employer provides widespread training on bullying and harassment issues, helping people understand themselves and their workplace relationships better, giving them ‘permission’ and the channels to speak out, the usual outcome is for the number of reported cases to go up. The MeToo effect.
And that hasn’t happened among City institutions. This might simply be the result of hybrid working, fewer people actually being together in workplaces in 2021, and a pandemic effect in terms of people being more sensitive and supportive when it comes to others’ needs. It could be that. More worryingly though, the fall-off in whistleblowing probably happened because staff now have a heightened sense of the seriousness of the claims, the implications for their bosses, and what might happen to them and their career. They know why and how they can speak up, but really don’t want to anymore.
This is the, often hidden, downside of awareness training and a serious crackdown from above. The stakes around workplace grievances and conflict are raised and there can be major unintended consequences. The politics and unreasonable behaviours and pressures still go on, but are adapted to suit the new context, what is and isn’t going to be called out and penalised.
Awareness — and a whole lot of fear among both senior managers and their reports — doesn’t change a culture. There has to be a shared feeling of trust between levels of staff, and confidence in the way complaints are going to be handled. This kind of positive, constructive workplace environment only comes about with skills and capability: the ability of managers to deal with ‘difficult’ conversations, to have empathy and self-awareness, to really listen to staff, not impose their ego on situations. There need to be ways for straightforward grievances, misunderstandings and clashes in personality, to be dealt with at earlier stages — whether through the use of easily accessible mediation services, neutral assessment, or just based on open-minded and honest conversations.
Workplace cultures are only going to coming under more scrutiny in the coming years, subjected to even tighter standards in terms of issues like diversity and inclusion, with less and less tolerance of any kind of discrimination or inappropriate behaviour at work. That’s going to mean more use of metrics and benchmarks, just like those being reported from the financial services sector. As this case shows, we need to be very careful in how those statistics are used. Do we want impressive-looking metrics or workplace cultures where people can actually feel able to be themselves?