Bullying has been a feature not only of my early work as the “brainy one” in my school, but also throughout my working life. My most recent experiences of this were at a well-known Healthcare Think Tank where a former mentor found he could not cope with what he saw as my unmerited “rise to fame”. It was a very destructive experience and I knew that a blind eye was being turned by the organisation involved. I also knew that at the base of this was HIS insecurity further warped out of shape by a serious dollop of jealousy.
It was ever thus but when I was younger I turned it in on myself. I assumed the negativity I was receiving was due to not being good enough so I tried harder and had even more spectacular results. I didn’t realise that this was only making them worse. They resented the mirror I shone on their mediocrity, on their insecurities.
I know that bullying is rife in any hierarchical organisation and the NHS is no exception. There remains a culture of delay, deny and defend. There is a LOT of fear around of speaking openly about this. In my talks to staff, I allude to my own experiences in Aberdeen City Council of the extreme end of workplace bullying. There are distinct parallels with the NHS. It was very hierarchical. There was a lot of brittle narcissism at upper levels. We were at the mercy not only of unethical managers but also unaccountable politicians. There were constant “restructurings”. The place was driven by fear. When I talk about my own experiences it seems to give NHS people permission to talk, often privately at the end of presentations, as it is of course NOT about the NHS. If you note any parallels I would have to say “you might think that, I could not possibly comment”.
Here is a more in-depth account of the extreme bullying that went on in Aberdeen City Council in the 1990s:
Our Chief Executive Donald McDonald BA MSc MIEE MIME was placed in post by our Councillors chiefly one Councillor James Wyness who became Lord Provost, as he had a reputation for “getting things done”. The end always justified the means in their eyes. For someone so apparently well-qualified, I found it really odd that he spoke a very bizarre form of English. He was from the Western Isles and so a lot of his English was a direct translation from the Gaelic. What I do know is he established a regime of fear which permeated throughout the entire organisation.
I seemed to be immune personally from most of it as he needed me to persuade Mikhail Gorbachev to visit Aberdeen. He lashed out at me once and only once and that was enough to cause my skin on my neck to flare up as though I had been burned. I witnessed him pick up box files and throw them at a colleague. I remember him in the corridor late one night calling the Director of Personnel some choice names that owed more to Anglo-Saxon than Gaelic. I had to walk past them and I noticed he was able to break off immediately from being as high as a kite, berating my colleague within an inch of his life to address me like an avuncular uncle “now you get along home now. It’s very late” only to ratchet the volume straight back up again as soon as I had gone past. I remember thinking at the time that this was scarcely normal behaviour.
Fear would descend on the building as soon as he arrived. He had a highly paid whipping boy whom I shall call Phil. Phil was utterly terrified of Mr McDonald. He would do his bidding no matter what, even when his wife was having a miscarriage. Mr McDonald had noted a small mark on the 52 sets of papers for fully Council and required Phil to photocopy the whole lot all over again. Phil complied leaving his wife to go through her trauma alone.
We had purges too. McDonald suddenly took against a particular pen produced by the Tourist Board. If we had one of these in our possession we were to hand them in immediately or they would be Hell to pay. He actually hated the creator of said pen then Director of Aberdeen Tourist Board Gordon Hendry who seemed to fashion himself on Tom Selleck and certainly left McDonald behind in the charisma stakes. McDonald looked like a member of the mafia crossed with a farmer from the Outer Hebrides. No wonder he loathed Gordon. It manifested itself in an immediate obsession with removing from the planet all trace of this particular pen. Anyone caught with one was presumably off to the Gulag.
Our scouts would let us know when McDonald’s car pulled into the underground car park. The message would be relayed to the nerve centre where those of us who had daily contact with him worked. Phil for one would at this point start giving off an odour like an animal in fear.
One morning I arrived in the office early. Phil was there almost in tears in hysteria. He quivered
There’s no milk for Mr McDonald’s tea.
Why don’t you nip down to the shop and get some before he comes?
Brilliant! Great. Yes. Brilliant!
And off he shot off down the spiral staircase like a Daddy Long Legs on speed. I imagine him stopping the traffic on Union Street and knocking old ladies out of the way in the queue in the shop in his drive to make sure all McDonald’s beverage needs were met.
McDonald duly arrived. Phil made tea to his precise specifications and did the usual routine of cowering outside the door trying to hear if McDonald was in there and whether he might be on the phone. He finally knocked and was summoned into the lair.
A few moments later, Phil shot out at great speed and I heard this bellowed behind him
Next time, if I want a fucking cup of tea I will fucking ask for one.
That little scene was absolutely typical. He seemed inordinately paranoid and particularly of those he deemed “intellectuals”. We were soon to find out exactly why this was…
As I mentioned in a previous blog, my Unison union representative finally reached the end of her tether and outed McDonald not only for failing to disclose his prison sentence for fraud and theft, but also stating loud and clear that “fear stalks the corridors of the Town House” in an endemic bullying culture all emanating from the top.
All Hell broke loose. McDonald called me into his office and seemed to be soliciting my support
You know I am not a bully don’t you?
The staff were divided between those of us brave or mad enough to come forward, and those who ran for cover. We held clandestine meetings in the Sportsmen’s Club and we had to knock three times (and ask for Rosie) before we could get in. We needed to be wary of spies. These gatherings were interesting almost as much for who wasn’t there as for who was not. The majority were in the latter category. An inquiry of sorts with a QC was called and we were asked to submit written statements. I had kept notes of incidents, dates and so forth where I witnessed colleagues being subjected to anything from verbal abuse to physical assault. I knew he was going to see the statements. I knew it could be career suicide. I wrote my statement and recall clearly standing at the post box hesitating and then thought
I have to be able to live with myself and my conscience. Would I expect colleagues to write in support for me if I went through something like this?
At that I shoved it into the post box. This led to an interview with the QC. When I read the typed version of what I had supposedly told him, it was so watered down as to be almost unrecognisable. I realise now how naïve I had been. The QC had been chosen specifically by our politicians for good reason. Perhaps there was a Masonic connection but what I do know is that he was not impartial. I also knew McDonald knew where bodies were buried. He had enough on each politician with any power to render them terrified that he would take them down with him.
He had managed to get away with a rap on the knuckles after the findings of the so-called QC but this was far from the end of the matter.
I had managed to arrange the Gorbachev visit. Here he is arriving at Aberdeen Airport.
He delivered his “Peace Lecture” at 1k per table to a sell out audience at Aberdeen’s Beach Ballroom largely consisted of oil companies doing business with Russia. In addition to this commercial enterprise, he was to be given Freedom of the City. This required a lot of meaningless ceremonial and I could tell Mikhail Sergeyevich found a lot of it highly amusing. He was shaking with laughter after I told one of his aides that the Council had decided to name the dessert at the lunch after the ceremony “Perestroika Pudding”. I recall distinctly that he looked directly across at me after the aide whispered in his ear, took his dessert fork and stabbed the meringue dessert straight through the middle causing it to collapse.
My favourite moment of all though was during the Freedom Ceremony itself. Both Mikhail Sergeyevich and Donald McDonald were to sign a formal charter. Mr McDonald struggled to get the lid of the pen off. Time stood still as he fumbled with it trying with his meat pie fingers to sort it out but it would not budge. With an extremely quizzical expression, Mikhail Sergeyevich took the pen from McDonald and simply pulled the lid off, handing it back to him with a very wry smile.
Now the letters after McDonald’s name indicated that he was a highly qualified engineer with a Masters and membership of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and Institute of Electrical Engineers. This would be quite a rare combination indication a man of exceptional ability. In the audience, was someone from the Aberdeen University Engineering Department. The inability of McDonald to get the lid of the pen off, planted the seed of suspicion in his mind. He didn’t know it yet but McDonald’s regime was about to collapse.
Next morning I came into work early to get a call from our Press Officer who had become a friend and fellow conspirator. She was in a state of high excitement so I legged it across the road to her office in the other building. The wife of the suspicious university lecturer was a friend of Margaret’s. She had contacted Margaret in the evening of the ceremony and told her that her husband had checked up on McDonald and discovered that not only was he NOT a member of any engineering Institute, he had no MSc. His entire CV had been a fabrication and he was the highest paid official in our City. No wonder he despised us “useless academics” so much. He knew he was a fake. He knew he could be found out at any time.
Now we needed to get the message out there. I had the task to get McDonald to sign a letter to show that on that date he was still using those letters after his name. Margaret had tipped off a journalist from the quality press in Scotland and I hot-footed it with the hot letter in a brown envelope. This is how the story got out. Margaret and I joined forces to leak it. It was ALWAYS the women who acted. Always.
After the article appeared in the Herald my Mum was worried that it might not get noticed so she photocopied it and distributed it to all the taxi drivers at the taxi rank in Back Wynd. Taxi drivers had been given a rough time by the Council so they were ready to get the news out. After that the press went haywire. The local tabloids picked it up. It was all over the papers and in the Town House we were buying every single edition in case there were any new details coming out.
McDonald’s dictatorship had collapsed. Was he punished? No, he was allowed to take early retirement with a massive payoff. Like I said, he knew where bodies were buried so justice was never really served, but he was gone. The Labour Group who had an overall majority voted through the payment with the exception of two Councillors who just could not countenance this payoff. They were both bullied by their Comrades and they both had breakdowns. One, a firefighter, ended up seriously ill in our local mental hospital. It did not do to have a conscience under that regime.
What interested me was the distinction between those of us wired to do the right thing, despite personal risk, and speak out, and those prepared to hide behind the wall until it was all over. I naively had an unshakeable belief that the truth would out. I still have it. Would I do the same again if I found myself in such an extreme situation? Actually I would. I might do it differently. I might make more of an effort to ensure my own safety but ultimately, I would not be able to live with myself unless I told the truth.
I had been told early on that I would never make a good local government officer as I had an “overdeveloped commitment to honesty”. How right he was…..