Delivering the goods

reports of ‘dysfunctional’ management practices across the UK, what is one
affected company, Consignia, doing to stamp out the bullying culture? paul
nelson reports

Workplace bullying has shot to the top of the list of employee grievances,
with more than one in three organisations experiencing unresolved staff
complaints leading to employment tribunal claims in the past three years,
according to a recent survey. Another poll cites that more than one in five
employees have been bullied at work at least once during the past year, and
that ‘dysfunctional’ management practices are becoming entrenched in some UK
organisations (see page 12).

There can be few organisations more acutely aware of the cost of an
institutionalised bullying culture than Consignia – not only financially, but
in terms of reputation and workforce morale. And this summer the mail delivery
firm, which is losing £1.5m a day, was criticised in an independent report into
its industrial relations.

The 18-month inquiry, conducted by Lord Tom Sawyer, concluded that the
organisation had a deep-rooted bullying and harassment culture. This
environment was blamed on overbearing bullying managers lacking in people
management skills.

Unbearable levels of harassment have also been directly linked to high
levels of localised wildcat strike action (industrial action taken without a
ballot and not authorised by a trade union). Consignia lost more than 53,000
working days to strike action in the 2001-02 financial year.

In a bid to return to profit, the company is undergoing a radical business
restructure, which includes shedding 30,000 jobs and scrapping the second post.

Addressing its workforce problems is central to Consignia’s efforts to stem
the cash haemorrhage. According to research by trade union Amicus, bullying and
harassment costs the organisation around £15m a year.

Published in May 2002, the survey shows that eight out of 10 managers
questioned by the union said they had experienced bullying in the past year.
And six out of 10 of the 265 managers polled admitted they had seen another
staff member being bullied.

Almost four out of 10 took sick leave last year due the problems they
experienced – at an average of 51 days per person.

Amicus claims Consignia’s staff survey shows more than 16,000 employees
suffered bullying in 2001. Meanwhile, the Communication Workers Union says its
harassment hotline has received more than 6,000 calls in the past 12 months.

The sheer scale of the problem facing the firm was brutally highlighted
earlier this year when Consignia admitted that racial abuse had led a young
black postman to kill himself.

Jermaine Lee, 26, hanged himself at his family home in Birmingham in
November 1999. Consignia settled out of court with Lee’s family after they won
the right to take his case to an employment tribunal.

Lee’s suicide note accused colleagues of intense bullying over an
eight-month period. In a statement Consignia said: "It is with extreme
shock, regret and sorrow that we found the actions of some employees
contributed to Jermaine’s decision to take his own life. He did suffer
harassment and bullying at work and there are strong indications that this
weighed heavily on his mind."

In response to the case, Consignia launched its largest-ever internal
investigation, involving more than 100 employees over six months – which
ultimately led to the dismissal of the Birmingham sorting office manager.

The findings of the investigation led to almost 50 radical and far-reaching
recommendations to change HR policies and a procedure to stamp out bullying at
the troubled firm.

These recommendations are a mix of regional and national changes. Birmingham-based
changes include a new management structure with the appointment of an area
operations manager, while company-wide a new complaints procedure is to be
implemented and training radically overhauled.

The employee opinion survey is also to be revamped along with improvements
in communications and increased management autonomy. As part of the company’s
commitment to changing its workforce culture, Consignia set up the ‘Great Place
to Work’ project with the aim of implementing the recommendations.

Paul Rich, corporate development director at Consignia, was headhunted from
his post as group managing director at the Post Office to head up the
three-person team charged with tackling the problem.

Rich, who reports directly to the board, admits he was
"overwhelmed" by the extent of the problem and unprepared for the
task that lay ahead.

"The bullying and harassment culture is shocking," he says.
"It is something you do not get so much of on the Post Office side."

The complaints procedure, which was introduced last month, will make HR
central to solving industrial relations issues. The old system had a number of
ways for staff to make a complaint, but it has been streamlined to one form
that will go to both the HR department and line manager. Next year, a
harassment phone line for staff will be set up so employees can seek advice
without having to involve line managers. Independent investigators will also be
employed and any complaint not resolved in a set timeframe will be dealt with
at a higher level.

"Bullying and harassment is completely unacceptable," says Rich.
"Personnel people will be given a greater role in dealing with harassment
as it is something the board and management team take very seriously. We will
stamp it out wherever found," he adds.

A training review published last month recommended a complete overhaul,
moving training out of the classroom and on to the shopfloor. Bullying and
harassment training will also be included in staff inductions.

For the first time, the CWU has a say on how managers are trained via
regional partnership boards. Union officials sit alongside representatives from
Consignia and the Communications Managers Association on three boards based in
the Midlands, Scotland and London.

The frequency of the employee opinion survey will also be dramatically
increased in an attempt to resolve potential bullying situations before they
escalate. Rich admits not enough importance has been placed on the existing
survey, which takes place on an ad hoc basis "once or twice a year".

The survey will now be sent out monthly to around 20,000 staff – a twelfth
of the workforce. Under the new system the questions will be updated to find
out how people feel about their working environment, line manager, operating
unit and the company.

"The problem [with the current employee survey] is our inability to
feed back fast to the local line manager where action should take place. The
restructure will allow us to do that," says Rich.

Internal communications are also to be more formally structured. A weekly
30-minute session will be introduced, allowing local managers to inform staff
about company issues. Rich stresses that in time he wants employees to be
setting the agenda for these meetings. "We are going to get our people
together, listen hard and act on what they say."

One way the company will encourage managers to respond to the needs of the
workforce is by giving site managers extra autonomy. From next year the
company’s 3,000 site managers will share an annual budget of up to £10m to improve
local working environments.

Rich believes giving managers more power to act on their own initiative will
improve relationships with frontline staff.

To manage this complete overhaul of HR and industrial relations at the firm,
Consignia is taking the unprecedented step of recruiting its first-ever
board-level company-wide HR director and the company expects the successful
candidate to be in place by the end of the year.

The company already employs a group personnel director, Bob People, who
co-ordinates HR across the organisation’s individual businesses including the
Post Office, Royal Mail and Parcelforce. There will also be individual HR
representation from each business because of the need for localised expertise.

Rich says the move will help drive the culture change by ensuring HR is at
the heart of the firm from the top down.

"The chairman rightly wants a group HR director to represent the rights
and issues of our people at the very top. When you are in a labour-intensive
industry, it is important to have someone who can represent key people issues
at board level."

How Consignia aims to beat bullying

– Appointment of the first
company-wide board-level HR director

– A new, HR-based, complaints procedure

– A radical training overhaul

– A revamped employee survey

– Weekly staff meetings

– £10m a year to improve the work environment

Getting the grievance procedure

When the Employment Act 2002 is
introduced into UK law next year, employers will for the first time be legally
obliged to act when an individual raises a bullying or harassment complaint.
Under the Act a basic statutory grievance procedure will be written into all
individuals’ contracts, meaning an employer can be sued for breach of contract
for failing to carry out its duties.

This makes it absolutely critical that HR departments implement
robust grievance procedures and mechanisms to protect their organisation from
costly lawsuits.

A grievance procedure should incorporate the statutory
requirements of the Employment Act and recommendations in the Acas code of
practice. It should be:

– Informal in structure

– In writing

– Simple and speedy

– Confidential

– Dealt with at the lowest level of management possible

At least four out of 10 employers need to make changes to their
grievance procedures to comply with the Act, according to a survey of 75 HR
managers published in IRS Employment Review.

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