Bullying row rumbles on as council hits back at unions with counter-allegations of ‘intimidatory behaviour’

Trade union demonstrators on the steps of Hackney Town Hall.
Photograph: UNISON/Unite/GMB

Hackney Council has hit out at trade unions’ decision to withdraw from an independent investigation into allegations of bullying, harassment and racism within the council’s call centre.

Hackney UNISON, Unite and the GMB accused the Town Hall of “consistently undermining” the investigation in a February letter to Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville (Lab & Co-op), provoking an angry response from Town Hall chief executive Tim Shields.

Allegations and counter-allegations over bullying are now flying between the unions and Town Hall, with Shields making reference to “some staff” feeling “intimidated and bullied” by the unions’ campaign to shine a spotlight on the Town Hall’s own practices.

Shields said: “I refute completely the allegation that ‘Hackney Council management have created a crisis… that it is presently unable or unwilling to solve’. There is a huge amount of will and commitment from myself and senior managers, as well as from the elected Mayor and Cabinet, to make Hackney Council as inclusive as it possibly can be.

“I find it unacceptable that you say ‘staff are continuing to suffer intimidation and indignity on a daily basis’ and trade unions ‘have been inundated with staff complaints from all across the council’. Despite my repeated requests, you have failed to provide the details of those incidents/complaints in order that they can be properly and thoroughly investigated.

“In an organisation of this size and complexity, there will always be challenges, but to meet them, we need to work together. Your decision to withdraw from the investigation goes against that need to collaborate and work together, and devalues what we have achieved together over recent years.”

Central to the unions’ campaign is the case of the October dismissal of Natasha Johnson, Unite’s branch equalities officer, following her complaints of discrimination and harassment in the Town Hall.

Johnson had raised complaints at her employment tribunal over a manager implying she was smoking marijuana at work, and being told: “If you haven’t got childcare, you shouldn’t be working here.”

The unions’ list of claims include alleged slurs such as:

  • a black female member of staff being referred to as “a Taliban” and “a slave”
  • a manager stating they would start embracing their roots because they were white and white people used to enslave black people
  • a member of staff’s history of domestic abuse being disclosed in public with the words: “Your partner is always pulling your hair out and you’re a walking car crash.”

A spokesperson for Hackney UNISON said: “The council has confirmed that the investigation will continue, but given what has taken place we cannot see how they can proceed.  The unions will now work with its members to prepare a report into bullying and harassment in the council.  In addition, UNISON are currently surveying staff about their own experiences.

“UNISON and the other unions note that the council has now advised that ‘some staff are now saying to management that they find the behaviour and language of the Trade Unions over this matter to be intimidatory and bullying’, and would encourage anyone who believes they have been bullied in any way by anyone to speak up.

“No complaints have been brought to the attention of UNISON of the other trade unions. Sadly it is commonplace for some bullies to make accusations against those that speak up.”

UNISON, Unite and the GMB pulled out of the independent investigation sparked by their campaign amidst claims of witness tampering by management in the council’s call centre, and protests of managers currently under investigation receiving promotions despite the inquiry being in its early stages.

The claims of management advising staff not to engage with the investigation are understood to have sparked another council-led investigation in which unions were not invited to take part, though Shields has dismissed further allegations that staff were questioned on the matter while working on the call centre floor as “nonsensical”.

No further action was taken as a result of the allegations of witness tampering after eight staff were interviewed, according to Shields.

In an underlined passage in the letter,  the chief executive highlighted that to allow the ongoing investigation to have influenced the internal hiring of the manager at which the unions protested would have been to “prejudge” the inquiry’s outcome.

Hackney UNISON went on to argue that the Town Hall is attempting to “muddy the waters” of the claims around bullying and harassment by shifting the debate on to its record on diversity, rather than engaging with “the very real experience of bullying and harassment by its managers on its staff”.

The trade union has also said that its members are now withdrawing their testimony to the investigation in a sign of a lack of confidence in how it is being run, which Shields said was “a great pity”.

Shields, in his letter, makes reference to the council’s “inclusive leadership champions programme”, as well as efforts to put equality and diversity principles into practice, to demonstrate Hackney Council’s “continued commitment” to them.

The chief exec admitted the council still has “an issue that needs to be addressed” around inclusivity, with 69 per cent of employees asked agreeing that the council was committed to equality and diversity in practice, leaving 31 per cent not positively affirming the statement.

An equality peer review carried out by the Local Government Association (LGA) in April 2018 states: “There is still a visible gap of black and ethnic minority staff at senior levels despite the fact that they are over represented in the workforce more generally. [The LGA] were not told of any positive actions being taken to tackle this issue yet.”

One UNISON member has been quoted as saying: “The psychological strain of feeling invisible has caused me mental damage amid feelings of isolation, resentment, humiliation, frustration and illness.

“My lack of self-esteem impacted on my confidence to apply for new jobs and has affected my personal life. This has built up over years in working in London Borough of Hackney.

“Race has for too long been at the bottom of the council’s equalities hierarchy in practice, relegating the importance of racial discrimination in relation to gender and sexual orientation.”

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