Tony Bingham considers the curious question of Dominic Raab and how to tell the difference between bullying and effective management

The now ex-deputy prime minister, lawyer and karate black-belt Mr Dominic Raab MP dropped an awful clanger when he got the test for bullying around his neck. You will recognise the type. We have oodles of them in our construction industry. A real fighter. Superman. Is he like your boss, or your firm’s lawyer, ready to play hell with you, the subbies, the employer, the architect? A bit of a stinker, until you twig that it is Superman’s defence mechanism. Deep down our Dominic is probably a sweetie, a pussycat, even a snowflake. It’s likely a cover-up. Anyway, he has blown it, for now.

Tony bingham 2017 bw web

What did he get wrong? There are two documents that he didn’t have time to land on while deputy prime minister. One is mostly about Priti Patel MP, the then home secretary. The matter came to court in December 2021 and is all about harassing, bullying and inappropriate or discriminatory behaviour. The other document is the Independent Complaints & Grievance Scheme for Bullying & Harassment of 2022.

Bullying is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour involving misuse of power that can make a person feel upset, undermined, humiliated, denigrated or threatened. Further, “power” does not always mean being in a position of authority and can include both personal strength and the power to coerce through fear or intimidation. It can take the form of physical, verbal and non-verbal conduct. Bullying behaviour may be in person, by telephone or in writing, including emails, texts and social media. It may be persistent or an isolated incident; hidden or insidious. Did you follow all that?

>>Also read: Construction should adopt a coaching style of management to make every person count

>>Also read: Coaching clinic: The key to unlocking potential

Now then, here comes a real bone-shaker: Mr Dominic Raab MP was convinced, and even bet his job on the notion, that no behaviour constitutes bullying unless (big unless) the perpetrator was aware that his conduct was upsetting or intimidating his target.

Wrong, ever so wrong! The High Court in the home secretary’s case between the queen (for the civil service union FDA) vs the prime minister explains bullying: “It is not necessary for the person carrying out the conduct to intend or be aware of the harmful consequences of his or her actions.” It is a two-stage test: “First: whether conduct constitutes bullying will depend on both the perception of the person experiencing the conduct… Second: whether it is reasonable for that person to have perceived the conduct as bullying.”

My boss was a bad‑tempered bully who spent his time rollocking all and sundry too. So what? He upset numerous folks – and almost always got the contract finished on time and with a completed final account…

There were eight complaints investigated by barrister Adam Tolley KC. Two were made out. Dominic Raab MP had promised to resign if any were made out. His conduct towards staff was a form of intimidating behaviour when he threatened disciplinary action. He did not target any individual nor intend to threaten anyone with disciplinary action. However, said Mr Tolley, he ought to have realised that his reference to the Civil Service Code could well have been understood as a threat. Also, Mr Raab when reaching and implementing management choices acted in a way that was very intimidating, in the sense of unreasonably and persistently aggressive conduct in the context of a work meeting. It was an abuse or misuse of power in a way that undermines or humiliates. He introduced an unwarranted punitive element. His conduct was experienced as undermining or humiliating the affected individual, which was inevitable.

 … and, if the account was challenged, he would fight like hell, swear, table-thump and threaten

In his resignation letter he still failed to see the test. He protested that people at his level “must be able to give direct critical feedback on briefings in order to set the standards and drive the reform the public expects of us”.

But the inquiry found that his manner was intimidating in the sense of going further than was necessary or appropriate in delivering feedback, and also insulting in the sense of making unconstructive critical comments about the quality of work done. Oh dear, all this stuff would look awful in a job reference, wouldn’t it?

I confess that the more I read the report of Mr Tolley, the more I recognised Mr Raab’s behaviour. It is ordinary. It is disagreeable. It is very easy to label him as a nasty piece of work, but, oh dear, oh dear, so too are many so-called managers. All those years ago, my boss was a bad‑tempered bully who spent his time rollocking all and sundry too. So what? He upset numerous folks – and almost always got the contract finished on time and with a completed final account. And, if the account was challenged, he would fight like hell, swear, table-thump and threaten. True, true: his bullying, his pure thuggery didn’t always work. His comeuppence was those instances when a Dominic Raab type – a forceful, combative, determined bully – was on the other side.

Look: we have moved on. These pages are chock-full of notions such as diversity, equity, inclusivity, equality and more. Dominic Raab and a whole queue of folk have to go back to school to learn how to get exactly what they want by… shall we call it soft soap? Then this ultra‑bright chap can come back to run the show properly.

Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple