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Dilemma: A staff complaint about bullying

A member of staff at your practice says bullying concerns were ignored by another partner. How should you respond? Three GPs discuss.

You are a new GP in a practice and a member of the admin team approaches you one day to ask for a chat in private. She reveals that she is being bullied by a senior member of her team, and hopes you will be able to help and support her. She had not felt supported when she raised this with a long-standing GP a few months ago. How do you manage this?

Dr Clare Taylor: Listen and gather all the facts

Clare Taylor - online

Managing employees requires the same skill set as handling patients

This scenario involves an area for which new GPs may feel unprepared. Yet as GPs we are well trained in information gathering, showing empathy and reaching an agreeable outcome with patients. Managing employees requires the same skill set.

The first thing is to listen to the concerned member of the admin team and gather all the facts. As with patients, letting her tell her story can paint a rich picture of the situation. Workplace bullying can cause significant distress so she needs to feel listened to and taken seriously. Listening does not necessarily mean agreement or taking sides.

Next, find out about the practice’s bullying and harassment policy. All workplaces should have this to protect employees. It is also important to speak to the practice lead for human resources. Further action will depend on the policy guidance, which will usually involve further information gathering and meeting with the alleged bully to establish their perspective and ask if they realise the effect of their behaviour. Then usually an attempt would be made to resolve the situation informally, although mediation or disciplinary procedures may be required depending on the seriousness.

Relationships in practices are often complex but it is vital for the new GP to act in a non-judgmental and procedure-driven manner, while also showing care for the member of staff.

Dr Clare Taylor works in Birmingham as an academic GP registrar and former RCGP First5 lead (2009-13)

Dr Richard Stokell: Be conscious becoming embroiled in long-standing divisions within the practice

Dr Richard Stokell

Be conscious of becoming embroiled in longstanding divisions within the practice

My first response would be to listen to a full account of the incidents, including what effect this is having on the member of staff. I would try to get a picture of her time at the practice and her life outside work.
I would want to know what records she has kept and what she has tried to do to remedy the situation herself.

Having kept accurate notes myself,  I would bring up our bullying and harassment policy and try to make a decision about whether the behaviour matched the definitions of bullying.

The next step would be to talk to my partners and the practice manager.
I would be conscious of the risks of becoming embroiled in longstanding divisions within the practice. Depending on how serious the accusations were, it might be appropriate to have an informal word with the accused individual.

Otherwise a formal written complaint would be required and the most appropriate person should investigate by talking to each staff member, including the member of staff who has been accused. It would be usual to bring the parties together and explore whether the matter can be resolved. I would contact the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) for advice. It may also be necessary to change working arrangements so the member of staff is not managed by the person accused of bullying. It might also be necessary to discipline the accused staff member.

Dr Richard Stokell is a GP in Birkenhead and associate director of the Mersey Deanery.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul: Ensure that a harassment and bullying policy has been circulated to all employees

Dr Chaand Nagpaul 2013 - online

Ensure that a harassment and bullying policy has been circulated to all employees

Everybody has the right to work in an environment where harassment and bullying are regarded as unacceptable.

Many people who are subject to bullying do not complain. Therefore when an employee has the courage to come forward, it is essential their complaint is taken seriously, dealt with confidentially and investigated quickly without risk of repercussions.

If a member of the practice experiences bullying, it is advisable that they contact a senior member of the team to see if there is a harassment and bullying policy available; it is the practice’s responsibility to ensure this exists and is circulated to all employees.

If a procedure does not exist, the employee should be reassured that the issue will be taken seriously. The employee should also be advised to keep a diary of events, including the date and time, what happened and who was present as this may help in proceedings.

Informal action is normally effective for bullying, but you may need to take formal action. An investigative process should begin. If there is a case to answer, formal disciplinary action should commence. Otherwise, support should be provided to both parties and a senior member of the team should follow up to ensure no victimisation has taken place and both parties are satisfied.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul is chair of the GPC, and GP in Stanmore.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Dr Taylor’s analogy of using consulting skills that we use with patients as a compass to how we respond in this situation to a troubled colleague is an excellent guide to follow. Alleged harassment is a serious matter requiring sensitive assessment and a non-judgemental approach. It can be difficult to imagine how hard it is for a bullied member of staff to build up the courage to come forward and disclose information, especially to a new GP colleague who she does not know well enough yet. Patients rightly expect us to display the highest professional attitudes and standards. To turn a blind eye to harassment because of personal fears of upsetting the team or your standing within the practice is unethical, unprofessional and goes against the standards of professionalism we should strive to achieve. It must also be remembered that harassment may not be isolated to one individual –Investigation may reveal that the instigator’s behaviour extends to others within the team, and even worryingly comes across in their attitude to patients. Therefore it can be considered our wider duty to take such allegations seriously in order to protect our colleagues and patients.

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