Reprise: Managing staff – a chance to show liberalism in action

Editor’s Note: Two reports published this week highlight bullying and harassment of staff in both Houses of Parliament. There are some horrific stories. Gemma White QC described the situation in the Commons. Naomi Ellenbogen QC did the same for the Lords. . There are some serious issues with the culture in Parliament.

This seems like a good moment to rerun an article written by Edinburgh Lib Dem member Stephen Harte who makes some suggestions about how we as a party can make sure we live our values in the way that we treat our staff. 

There has been much in the news about MPs and, in Scotland, MSPs behaving inappropriately towards staff – whether this be bullying or inappropriate sexualised behaviour. Many of the current examples relate to other parties but most of us will be aware that we too have had our problems and can be no more complacent than any other party. For example, I can think of one former Parliamentarian (who, to this day, I greatly admire) who, when stressed, could shout at staff in ways that fell far short of good HR practice. There are many other stories within our party of much worse behaviour from other Lib Dems towards staff and volunteers. This is simply not good enough.

This all makes me wonder if every Lib Dem who employs or engages with staff (whether at a party level, directly as their own staff or as staff of the body on which they serve) or manages volunteers should undertake a training course on how to manage staff in accordance with the law, good HR practice and, importantly, our liberal values.

The late, great Maya Angelou told us “When people show you who they are, believe them.” What we do is a showcase for what we believe liberalism looks like in practice. While no one is perfect and we all have times when we fail to live up to our ideals, how we behave shows people what we truly believe.

Two years or so ago I took up my current job. I have been a lawyer all of my working life but this was the first time I had direct responsibility for managing a whole team of staff. I got the job because I am (I like to think anyway) a good lawyer. I was good at that because I had lots of training and experience over many years. However, I had no training and experience at management and, with hindsight, it was not a surprise that I found it more difficult to be a good manager than I had expected.

Though I hope my intentions were always good, through inexperience and clumsiness, at times, I didn’t manage my colleagues in ways that got the best from them. For example, when I thought I was telling someone in plain terms what needed to be done and why what they had done didn’t work (all true), they could experience my behaviour as harsh or even worse. Much of my challenges resulted from me being unaware of how enthusiasm for delivering performance in the key roles of our team impacted on members of my team. Positive intention does not always mean positive impact!

It’s true that we are entitled to expect performance from staff but staff are also entitled to expect to be managed well and in ways that support their performance and development. It became clear that I had much to learn and I suspect that many people who suddenly become managers will have had experiences similar to mine. Being a good manager is not as simple as wanting to be a good manager.

Thankfully, there are development resources available to me within my company and I have made full use of them. I would like to think I am getting better at management – and part of my development has been to seek feedback and this suggests we are all moving in the right direction. In the same way that I want to be a better lawyer tomorrow than I was today, I similarly see my ongoing development as a manager as part of the continuous performance improvement to which I aspire. My journey as a manger is far from over.

Lib Dem MPs, MSPs, AMs, MEPs, Peers, Councillors and party senior management and office holders don’t become such necessarily because they are good staff managers (and, indeed, the focused determination needed to get elected can often produce behaviours that don’t help in managing staff!!). It’s no surprise that some don’t perform well as managers (although I appreciate that others do the job exceptionally well – I know of one Parliamentarian whose staff team produce excellent results and love working for them).

We must stop setting ourselves up for failure. I don’t believe any of our people want to treat their staff badly. For everyone‘s sake we need to think how we resource and train our people to manage the staff they work with legally, effectively and in ways that show what liberal values look like in action.

Could we have a training course (compulsory as far as possible) lasting a couple of days setting out what “good” looks like and stressing the management behaviours that drive that?

Could we have an HR consultant available at the end of the phone when guidance is needed or crises arise?

Yes, this would all cost money but failing here also costs money as well as causing pain to everyone (the manager and the managed – whoever was at fault) and damage to our reputation as a party.

* Stephen lives in Edinburgh, works in the oil industry in Aberdeen and has been a party member since he was 17.

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3 Comments

  • Sue Sutherland 12th Jul '19 - 1:58pm

    You are so right Stephen, being a good manager is very difficult indeed. There are so many areas of employment where managers are good at the original job, in your case being a lawyer, but have no training in management at all. I think it would be an excellent idea to incorporate this into existing Lib Dem training. I also think that training in management should be offered at local level for small firms and charities who don’t have the resources to do this on their own.

  • I am not sure where we are at with it but I think there is an argument that all lib dem PPCs should complete a mandatory lib dem “HR” training within say a year of being selected or without a good excuse be deselected. And if there isn’t a reading list and a list of online resources available, it should be. I appreciate that some PPCs – whisper it quietly – are only a name but even so most PPCs “employ” people if not in a paid capacity such as their election agent. And I appreciate there is some excellent lib dem training and advice on working with volunteers etc. available.

    The electoral commission I believe gives money to “substantial” political parties for policy development and electoral compliance. There is more than an argument that they should give it for this sort of work as well.

    Let’s also get a little “real”. Bullying and harassment is wrong. But of those that have been candidates, councillors, PPCs and MPs there are those that have been a bit cross, rude, shouted etc. occasionally and there are liars. I certainly have had my share of “candidatitis”. And I apologize to those that I took it out on. But personally I am happy to have the odd cross word from someone because I realise where they are coming from. And it is often their proverbials on the line. And it’s often these people that I know that if the chips were down for me personally would come to my help and not the “nicely nicely” people. And of course most of the time we are working in a spirit of common endeavour to advance liberal democracy and improve our area and country.

    Indeed sadly today we are only too ready to condemn errors of commission rather than omission. I would prefer to work for someone who cared and got a little stressed than someone who didn’t care at all and never raised their voice.

    And politics sadly is stressful!

  • Katharine Pindar 13th Jul '19 - 9:38am

    This is a fine article; thank you for your thoughtfulness and honesty, Stephen. Working relationships can make a tremendous difference to the welfare and effectiveness of staff, and I agree with your proposals for more human-resource backing up and training.

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