Bullying is rife in fire brigades

Another day, another damning report into the culture of a predominantly White, male organisation. Last week, the spotlight was on the Metropolitan Police. This week, it’s the turn of another public service. Bullying is rife at ‘every fire brigade in England’, according to the latest review, while allegations of racist, homophobic, and misogynistic behaviour have been made at one in four of these services. And worryingly, these numbers might only represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

‘But where do they start in their efforts to change the culture?’ was a common refrain this week after the revelations about the Met. ‘Is it even possible?’

Twenty years ago, the same questions were being asked about the City of London, which many viewed as a cesspool of swirling testosterone. Investment bank UBS was a fixture of the regulatory body’s naughty step, particularly after rogue trader Kweku Adoboli lost more than $2 billion because of fraudulent activities.

Annie Coleman joined UBS on the day Adoboli’s losses were announced. After the arrival of new chief executive Andrea Orcel, she and a colleague were tasked with changing the culture of the investment bank. For his part, Orcel shed troubling divisions, de-risked the balance sheet and launched a new strategy.

But, as Coleman concedes, there’s no point in having a new strategy if the people don’t work and think differently. A large part of making that happen is to make people take responsibility. Bad behaviour doesn’t happen in isolation. Bullies are rarely shrinking violets. People usually know who should be avoided in the workplace.

Colleagues within UBS could see that something was wrong with Adoboli’s trading, but they either felt it was not their responsibility to speak out or were worried about recriminations. Culture is not something that is simply done to people. At UBS, Coleman sought to demonstrate that the people were its culture, in how they behaved, in the decisions that they made.

If people were to speak out, they needed to feel safe. UBS introduced a digital platform enabling mentoring at scale, which allowed people to tap into the wisdom of the organisation rather than seeking the opinion of their line manager or teammates.

Junior colleagues asked questions anonymously, which were answered by identifiable senior colleagues. Such anonymity removed unconscious biases which may have shaped potential responses, leading to real openness and transparency.

But Coleman also gave people ownership. Having offered insights into the negatives of working at UBS, colleagues were given three-month ‘sprints’ to work together to come up with solutions. The best ones would be implemented across the bank.

Work life balance emerged as an issue. A team of younger bankers proposed ‘Take two’, an initiative that allowed everybody to take two hours once a week – to have a lie in, for example, or attend a child’s concert – as needed, with the agreement of colleagues. Flexibility became permissible. In a world where hybrid working is now commonplace, it is hard to remember how ground-breaking this simple action was.

True change, however, is impossible without the backing of senior leadership. At UBS, Orcel regularly discussed both the strategy and culture, and – more importantly – the role each department, team or individual played in its delivery. He also hosted annual town hall meetings where colleagues could ask questions or raise issues anonymously.

The new culture also allowed leaders, such as Orcel, to admit they did not have all the answers. The historic top-down directive-style leadership had gone, to be replaced by a more collaborative, thoughtful approach.

But Coleman concedes that there will always be some people who ‘get it’, and others who will resist. She concentrated her efforts on those senior leaders who would act as cheerleaders, and champion the new culture. As this trickled throughout the bank, gathering momentum, it would – on occasion – force the refuseniks to adapt, if not change.

The Met Police and England’s fire and rescue services may not be so lucky. Too often, it seems, the source of toxicity is a senior officer, who would likely feel more at home in the workplace of the 70s than the 21st century. Paradoxically, they often have the experience and on-the-job knowledge that their younger colleagues could learn from. Kicking them out may be the answer, but it might not be the solution.

At UBS, one response was to hit the dinosaurs where it hurt: bonus payments. Performance reviews moved beyond whether an individual had achieved their goals, to include whether they had also lived its culture. Metrics included its values.

Would such an approach be possible in the public sector, particularly where unions are fiercely protective of workers’ rights? Bonus payments are also usually a small portion of overall pay, which would reduce the impact of such a measure.

And anyway, the fire and rescue services have already done so much to level the salary playing field. Ah yes, in a stunning example of where data fails to tell the full story, these services have exemplary gender and ethnicity pay gaps. In fact, they are often zero, or close to zero, for the same role. That’s right folks, you may get bullied or abused in the workplace, but at least you don’t get stuffed in your pay packet.

And please: if you are going to discuss the most recent allegations, do remember the people involved are fire fighters and not fire men. It is an issue on which these services have campaigned so passionately in recent years. It’s about breaking down the stereotypes. It’s about inclusivity. It’s about respect. It’s absolutely nothing to do with irony.