‘Staff bullying makes a mockery of our mission statement and ethos’

A residential care worker speaks out about the impact of the 'toxic atmosphere' created by workplace bullying on staff and young people

Photo: Feng Yu/Adobe Stock

By David Jones

Eleven years ago, as I was about to start my first shift as a residential child care worker, the children’s home manager – who had interviewed me for the post – beckoned me into his office.

I still recall his exact words as he asked me to take a seat: “I’ve no doubt you’ll be fine with the young people, but watch your back with some of the staff.”

At the time, his encouragement was appreciated and the warning didn’t really register; being introduced to the home’s five teenage residents was all that exercised my mind.

‘Toxic atmosphere’

Eleven years later and my former manager’s advice still sadly – and scandalously – pertains. Such is the culture of staff bullying I’ve encountered, it makes a mockery of the mission statement and ethos of children’s homes; that they foster inclusivity, with staff and young people treating each other with respect.

I’ve witnessed brilliant and committed staff being verbally abused and shunned by colleagues, whether due to jealousy and resentment regarding the relationships they have forged with the young people, or just sheer nastiness.

And I’ve been a victim myself, when told in no uncertain terms that I’ve over-indulged an upset kid or spent too long at the shops with a youngster helping them buy clothes.

Whatever form this undermining – and intimidating – behaviour takes, it’s an issue that strikes at the heart of what children’s homes are meant to be about. The toxic atmosphere it engenders can make life hell for staff, and young people quickly pick up on this.

Some of these kids have already experienced traumatic loss in their lives, so when a trusted worker can no longer function in a hostile environment and feels compelled to leave, kids are left bereft.

‘Fit for purpose?’

Bill, a former colleague of mine, was the third member of staff who had simply had enough and left the care home. “It reached the point where I couldn’t do right for doing wrong,” he explains. “My daily logs were either too detailed or not detailed enough. My decision making was called into question and I felt I’d lost the respect of certain colleagues.”

“And the pettiness began to suck the life out of me. I would be told that I’d not washed up the pots properly or been too slow preparing the evening meal. Things reached such a pitch that I dreaded coming to work and would actually feel nervous as I approached the home in my car. I wanted to turn round and drive back home, and then one day that’s exactly what I did.”

“I’d started to question what role the home was actually playing. Was it actually fit for purpose when a social worker reported concerns raised by a child about my low mood to the manager? Kids are clearly affected by an uncomfortable environment and they hate it. But nothing further was done to address the issue and my manager merely told me to soldier on.”

‘It’s your word against that of another colleague’

At the start of my career I was told that if I had a problem with a colleague, I should first bring it up with them. If this failed to resolve the matter, I was to go through the chain of command – my supervisor, the home’s assistant manager and then the manager – but thankfully, I’ve yet to find myself in such a position.

However, I have attended two disciplinary tribunals in support of Bill and another colleague who had also felt let down by this process. On both occasions, the worker whose bullying was being investigated lied about their poor practice, but in the interest of maintaining healthy staff relations, they were moved to another children’s home.

“It leaves a bad taste in your mouth as your credibility, and that of colleagues who have supported you, has been questioned yet again,” explains Bill. “At the end of the day, it’s your word against that of another colleague, and unless you’re actually caught doing something illegal or commit a heinous breach of trust, you keep your job.”

‘More rigour’

I spoke to the local authority’s head of children in care, regulated services, who conceded that the mechanisms in place for dealing with the issue of staff bullying could be more rigorous:

“I do feel that a more concerted recording of such incidents in a home, when possible, should be encouraged. Colleagues can feel compromised by doing this of course, and fear being labelled a whistle-blower, but if questionable practice is noted by staff and a pattern of behaviour established, I think this would be a start. Certainly, a home’s staff should be more sensitive to this issue, but it isn’t straightforward.”

But it would be a start, and might even mean one less child having to be consoled when a respected adult suddenly disappears.

David Jones works in a residential children’s home. His name has been changed.

7 Responses to ‘Staff bullying makes a mockery of our mission statement and ethos’

  1. Ana Claudia Menezes November 15, 2019 at 8:29 am #

    I feel really sad that you went through this terrible experience.

  2. sw November 16, 2019 at 3:16 am #

    It’s really deplorable that bullying is becoming more common and entrenched feature of social care. It is becoming acceptable and people have to soldier up, resign from that place or get dismissed.
    And unfortunate state is that it is not confined to colleague but service managers and managers collude.

    I have known cases where the information has been changed or deleted on the electronic records to project the worker singled out as incompetent and disorganised.

    There is a workplace where I was demanded by my manager to provide the name of the doctor who saw me at Accident and Emergency – if someone is in such agony to attend emergency department, would that person even remotely think about remembering the name of the doctor or the radiologist who saw her? And in this instance this had resulted in mere absence of one day from work.

    The issues came to the attention of service managers, head of the service and her deputy and the bully was rewarded. Right across the board there were bullies with skewed perspectives.

  3. Graham Park November 16, 2019 at 10:26 am #

    Desperately serious, and well done for reminding us. As a now retired social worker who spent some years resolving problems in voluntary services for adults, this hopeless, outdated hierarchical approach is familiar and I hoped had died out; seemingly not. Moving bullies elsewhere is depressingly familiar, and the prevalence of staff with suspect abilities and motivations, including some with personality disorders, seems common. Do managers not get it that if staff bully each other (bad enough, and an insult to the majority who are well motivated), they are likely to do so to clients as well? My own experience was with undertrained, and so cheaper, voluntary housing and other agencies, but I know it happens in statutory residential services too. Either way, there is no excuse for social service managers and commissioners to overlook it.

  4. Marie November 18, 2019 at 4:37 pm #

    Sad but true. This culture exists across many if not all social care environments. I qualified almost 30 years ago and stepped out of SW 3 years ago last month. I have no intention or motivation to return. It made me ill and my health suffered significantly. If recant rely on each other how can we expect our children and young people to rely on us. Unfortunately this toxic and dangerous environment has taken hold and been around too long now. To change this ingrained practise takes more than one individual to fix. Blame culture, bullying culture, watch your back culture are rife in our profession.

  5. Tom J November 20, 2019 at 4:54 pm #

    There is no magic wand when someone experiences bullying, particularly if it is promoted by the organisation i.e. ‘You must meet these targets by hell of high water’. However I would encourage people to at least talk with their Trade Union rep to think it through and think about potential solutions.

  6. AMT November 20, 2019 at 5:10 pm #

    I can relate to much of what is being stated by Bill. Unfortunately, too often, it is the victim of bullying who is left to reconsider their own position. In many cases the victim of bullying i left to get on with it, having lost their confidence along the way…..

  7. Anon November 22, 2019 at 6:14 pm #

    its really sad. I can relate to the author of this article.

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