Tuesday, May 21, 2019

A toxic workplace

The report of the Independent External Review into Bullying and Harassment in the New Zealand Parliamentary Workplace was released today, and it paints a picture of a toxic workplace where bullying is rife. MP's bully staff, MP's bully each other, Parliamentary Services' HR department is useless and compromised, and its basicly a perpetual torrent of stress and shit. And no-one does anything about it because of the power imbalances and political sensitivities which mean no-one can complain, let alone get justice. And this is all widely known within the building, which makes it surprising that anybody is willing to work there at all.

What to do about it? The independent reviewer recommends a bunch of changes to staff contracts and conditions, which is all good. More importantly, they have recommended that Parliament establish an Independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Conduct to investigate abuses by MPs. Which would be great if it happens, but given those sensitivities, I just can't imagine MPs ever voting for that.

Speaking of MP's, this bit is particularly quoteworthy:

“There’s a majority of absolutely lovely MPs and Ministers who are real people people and who would be excellent leaders anywhere. They are just awesome. Then there’s the few who are various shades of shits...and everyone knows who they are, and no one ever challenges them...at least not obviously or effectively.”

It was very common for respondents to mention the names of a small number of Members they saw as ‘repeat offenders’. As one put it: “Everyone will give you the same list. It’s well known but there’s a conspiracy of silence about these few.”

The report of course refuses to name those MPs, meaning that the independent reviewer is effectively part of this conspiracy of silence as well. Which is not acceptable. Naming names is the first step towards accountability, and that needs to happen if anything is to change.

There's also some interesting stuff about demographics. Pointing out that many member-support staff are "twenty-something year-old staff members in what may be their first job out of university", the report goes on to say:
This has several consequential effects. One of the more concerning is the fact that some young staff members appeared to me to believe that some of the negative aspects of the parliamentary workplace were normal. Some described emerging from their employment experience at Parliament cynical and with a high tolerance for poor behaviour. When young professionals in their first jobs see or experience bad behaviour by leaders it risks them replicating those behaviours.

And at this point that its worth noting that both of the publicly-identified parliamentary bullies (Jami-Lee Ross and Meka Whaitiri) previously served as member-support staff, meaning their bullying behaviour may have been institutionalised into them. Its rather like intergenerational child-abuse: today's abusive MP's were normalised to abusive habits by their past exposure to a toxic, abusive institution.

So what can we do about it? Apart from demanding an independent commissioner, this bit has a hint:
I did form an impression of demographic differences among Members in their attitudes to peer to peer bullying and harassment, regardless of Party. Newer or younger Members tended to express low tolerance for poor conduct from colleagues, while longer tenured Members tended to say something like, in the words of one: “I’ve just got used to it as being part of what this place is all about. It’s not a place for the faint hearted.”

So one obvious way of improving parliament's culture would be for us to vote out the time-servers who are institutionalised to and help normalise it. While its not sufficient, it might at least allow some change to take place.