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Exclusive: Bullying and harassment on the rise

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LGC research finds formal complaints are on the rise among council staff 



Formal grievances involving bullying and harassment by council staff have increased by 7.5% over the past three years, sparking concern about the impact of growing financial and workforce pressures on behaviour in local government.

A freedom of information request to all 152 upper tier councils also revealed the proportion of grievances either upheld or partially upheld rose to 26% in 2017-18, from 21% in 2015-16.



Of the 68 councils that provided full data to LGC, 29 recorded an increase in grievances over the period, 27 saw a decrease and in the remaining 12 the number stayed the same.

Concern over inappropriate behaviour in the workplace has grown in the wake of the international Me Too movement highlighting sexual harassment. Closer to home, the issue of mistreatment in the workplace was brought into sharp focus last year by the independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in the Commons. This found the problem was widespread and exacerbated by inadequate procedures to deal with them.

Graeme McDonald, managing director of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, said councils were not immune to the growing problem of bullying and harassment.

“The risk of these types of behaviours has increased,” he said. “Decisions staff and members are asked to make are more difficult. The resources they have got to make those decisions are tighter and the stakes are high. These things increase the risk of these types of behaviours happening.”

Mr McDonald added that the current challenges within the communities councils serve relating to respect for authority, experts and the establishment are reflected within their workforces. “It is an area we need to ensure we are aware of and reacting to appropriately,” he said.

Karen Grave, president of the Public Services People Managers Association, told LGC: “There is a culture of keeping numbers quiet due to fears over reputational damage.”

She said management of “really tough” frontline services “hasn’t always been as good as it needs to be”, particularly with pressures on a reduced workforce attempting to meet targets.

The risk of these types of behaviours has increased. Decisions that staff and members are asked to make are more difficult

Graeme McDonald, managing director, Solace

Ms Grave added human resources staff, like the general workforce, are under “considerable pressure”, something she describes as a “real and present danger to organisations”. There is an increasing trend of councils that had made human resources directors redundant reinstating them, she said.

“HR functions are more valuable under times of workforce pressure,” Ms Grave said. “Whilst we are often seen as support, back office services, the reality is that HR and organisational development [OD] – and indeed other support services – are absolutely critical enablers for effective frontline services.”


*Other: resolved informally, withdrawn or the subject of the complaint resigned. In a very small number of cases the outcome was not provided

Some of those councils recording the highest number of grievances in recent years have had high-profile cultural problems.

Tower Hamlets LBC, which has emerged from a period of internal friction and instability after former mayor Lutfur Rahman (Tower Hamlets First) was ousted from office in 2015, had the highest number of bullying and harassment grievances in the three years with 49. Of these, 8% were upheld or partly upheld. The number of grievances fell slightly from 19 in 2015-16 to 18 in 2017-18.

A Tower Hamlets spokesperson said the council encourages sta to report concerns and works to find a resolution “as quickly as possible”.

They added: “Our numbers reflect our open and supportive approach to dealing with complaints.” Rotherham MBC, where inquiries into the sex abuse scandal exposed a council where misogyny, harassment and bullying were commonplace, recorded 30 complaints over three years.

A spokesperson for Rotherham, which upheld 27% of the grievances, said: “We are much improved from the council we were four years ago which means we actively encourage the reporting of issues in a bid to be open and transparent and so that structured resolutions and learning can be put in place.”

Bristol City Council (40), Cambridgeshire CC (35), Cornwall Council (34) and Suffolk CC (34) were the only other councils with 30 or more complaints of bullying and harassment over the three years.

A Cambridgeshire spokesperson said the council has robust processes in place and had worked with staff to develop a new ‘Respect at Work’ policy in 2018.

They added: “The policy has further strengthened our approach to formal reporting, but importantly, it also introduced new informalchannelsand support networks such as our Respect at Work champions, encouraging staff to have a conversation and raise matters early before they develop or escalate.”

A spokesperson for Bristol pointed to staff changes as a result of a “prolonged period of change” as a reason for the high number of grievances.

However, they added the council was “confident” its internal processes encouraged openness within the council which had a small number of recorded staff grievances for an organisation with around 6,000 employees.

Mike Short, senior national officer for local government at Unison, said austerity has had an impact on the effectiveness of councils’ grievance processes.

“Branches have had facility time reduced and many authorities will tell you they have had cuts to HR. All of this makes it more difficult to get your grievance procedures right,” he said.

Mr Short said unions are involved in developing grievance procedures in the “vast majority” of councils, but the effectiveness of process is largely determined by the culture of an organisation.

He said Unison has concerns over the quality of monitoring and evidence gathering, particularly on equality issues, with best practice not being followed in some areas.

“We do have evidence that, for example, black workers are more likely to need to put in a grievance because they are more likely to be victims of bullying and harassment,” Mr Short said.

“Workers are much more likely to suffer from work-related mental health problems, stress and so on, if they are from any of the equality protected characteristics groups.” The largest increases in grievances between 2015-16 and 2017-18 were reported by Cheshire East Council (12), Cornwall (11) and Gloucestershire CC (10).

Cornwall also had the highest uphold rate of 62%. However, 15 councils did not In a very small number of uphold a single bullying and harassment cases the outcome was not provided grievance over the period.

A total of 24 councils had 10 or fewer complaints while Bexley LBC was the only council that reported having none. The council did not respond to a request for comment.

Black workers are more likely to need to put in a grievance because they are more likely to be victims of bullying and harassment

Mike Short, Unison

Ms Grave said an increasing number of grievances, along with a rising proportion of those upheld, is generally considered evidence of a problem that needs to be addressed. But the rises could also show an organisational culture that promotes confidence among the workforce to raise concerns, while higher uphold rate could demonstrate a willingness in councils to recognise legitimate grievances.

Of the councils that did not uphold any grievances, Wigan MBC had the highest number of claims of bullying or harassment with 25. Four were rejected and the rest resolved informally. Wigan’s assistant director for HR and organisational development Lisa Selby said the council has in place several “voice channels” and organisational policies and procedures which give staff the confidence to raise concerns.

“We feel the statistics are reflective of the fact that bullying and harassment isn’t a ‘hidden’ problem for us, but rather staff feel able to use the policies, procedures and support we have in place and are confident enough to raise any concerns,” she said.

Ms Grave admitted there is “a way to go before everyone is operating at a consistent level” when it comes to setting out clearly what constitutes a grievance.

She warned of an increasing trend among some councils having to “be really persuaded” to escalate a complaint unless a staff member has raised concerns with their manager. This scenario would deter some staff who may not feel comfortable approaching the person in question, particularly if they are the cause of complaint.

Some organisations are stronger at setting expectations around “values and behaviours”, she added, while the public sector in general “has not done performance management well” within an environment that can be “difficult” for HR and organisational development staff.

“Part of that is historical,” Ms Grave said. “HR traditionally has been seen as the part of the organisation that deals with people issues when it is managers that need to manage people.”


Twelve councils did not provide grievance information to LGC because they said it would take too long to review their case Ms Grave said figures should be readily available to improve monitoring and provide evidence to inform good practice.

“I recognise that is a justification that is given that is genuine, but I don’t endorse it,” she said. “Not every HR function has got the resources to be able to invest in case recording systems, but it is not helpful, and it is not good practice.”

Areas with highest numbers of cases

areas with highest number of cases

areas with highest number of cases

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