Guest blog: Jenny McCullough
Jenny worked at the House of Commons between 2002 and 2011. She left the House of Commons Service because of bullying. In 2018 she was part of BBC Newsnight’s investigation into bullying and harassment at Westminster and since then has continued to work with her former colleagues in a campaign for change to the complaints system and the culture of the House of Commons. Jenny is a member of the Conduct Change Advisory Board.
Politics and politicians will have moved on unless another scandal erupts and it shouldn’t take the public airing of ruined lives and careers to shame MPs to act.
Dave Penman, General Secretary of the FDA civil servants’ union, HuffPost blog, 13 July 2018
When I first read this, in the peculiarly relentless heat of that summer two years ago, I knew that I was next in line for the public airing of my own ruined life and career at the House of Commons. The phrase, written by a great supporter of the rights of parliamentary staff, was intended to be more of a description than a judgment, but to me it felt like a sentencing – and there was a finality to it that, even after years of reliving it in secret and months of getting ready to talk about it in public, I hadn’t faced until then. I had to ask myself why I hadn’t been able to ‘move on’ in the way that politics and politicians had, and, if there wasn’t to be any reprieve from the ruination of my life and career, what had been the point of trying.
Trying to move on from bullying and harassment was a process of trial and error. Having been moved from my post to another within the House of Commons, I attempted to make a new start and spent two exhausting years trying to prove myself before I had to leave altogether. I felt as though I had failed to move on, and this feeling was reinforced by the conclusion of a grievance procedure I had started because I wanted my employer to learn lessons from my case, and protect my colleagues from the kind of experience I’d had. But I already knew of other complaints of bullying and harassment, and other careers being damaged, so my own conclusion was that I had failed again.
After that I decided to stop talking about bullying and harassment. I hadn’t told anyone in my new job why I had left the House of Commons and when old colleagues and friends referred to any of the politicians or managers involved in my case, I would always say that they weren’t much in my thoughts nowadays and leave it at that. It became a kind of mantra: if I kept saying it, I thought, I could make it come true. But staying silent wasn’t the same as moving on.
Deciding to break that promise to myself and help with an investigation that aimed to expose the severity of Westminster’s bullying and harassment problem is the best decision I have ever made. It took a lot more than the airing of my ruined life and career to secure action but work by BBC Newsnight compelled the House of Commons to commission an independent inquiry by Dame Laura Cox QC, whose recommendations are – at last and as the result of yet more effort by journalists, campaigners and Commons staff – to be implemented in full.
I had lived for my job at the House of Commons. Bullying and harassment there shattered my whole sense of self and after I left I wanted to live as privately and quietly as I could: I was ashamed of the past and afraid of the future. It wasn’t easy, then, to talk about what had happened to me with any confidence that it hadn’t been my fault, my failure to ‘move on’. But it was through the investigation that I was able to put my experience into perspective, by talking to people from outside the institution I’d been immersed in, who were able to assure me that nothing about my experience at the House of Commons was normal, and to former colleagues from the House who had also been subjected to bullying and harassment who assured me that I wasn’t alone in standing up and speaking out.
Going through it isn’t the same as getting over it but I know now that I would not have been able to speak publicly about bullying if I hadn’t been able to ‘move on’ in at least some ways. I have found working life difficult, always hearing echoes of my past experience in roles and organisations both vastly different from and as comparable as could be to the job I had wanted for life. But I’ve also worked with and for extraordinarily talented, and kind, people who supported and encouraged and showed confidence in me when I was more vulnerable than they could possibly have known, and trained and learned in ways that wouldn’t have been possible for me if I had stayed at the House of Commons. It’s thanks to them I’ve been able to work with purpose and dignity, so it hasn’t been a ruined life and career since: I needed all of that experience before I could stand up to bullying and harassment again.
Whether on demand for public consumption or besieged by thoughts unbidden, reliving the past has been hard work in itself. But while reflecting on the emotional baggage of bullying – humiliation and shame, anger and bitterness, complicity and betrayal, desperation and despair – might not lift the weight, it does help to distribute it more evenly. And that opens the way for positive action. Playing a small part in the big story of changing the way a public institution deals with workplace bullying and harassment has been a fantastic, enriching privilege. I’ve been able to see and learn from the best people doing the best work in their respective professions, and, years after I had to leave its service, I’ve been on a better House of Commons team than I could ever have imagined.
Getting involved with Conduct Change has been the culmination of all of this. Seeing the bigger picture of bullying by looking at law, policy, research and scope for action has given me a framework for better understanding of the scale and effects of the problem, and the chance to join another team that is aiming to make the workplace safer for us and all of our colleagues. So much for my so-called ruined life.
Conduct Change was founded in 2019 with the purpose of changing behaviour in workplaces to create more courageous and compassionate approaches to prevent workplace bullying. The founder, Nicki Eyre, has been through her own workplace bullying experience during her career and recognises the scale of the problem at both an organisational and individual level.
We recognise that workplace bullying is a sensitive topic for many businesses. If you are concerned that you may have a bullying issue in your workplace, or just want help in opening up the conversations, we are here to advise. We offer a free and confidential discussion to understand the issues and explain what options are available for you.
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