Having seen her ignorant, hypocritical, and opportunistic grandstanding in the kangaroo court known as the Public Accounts Committee, I have no sympathy for the situation in which Margaret Hodge now finds herself with the Labour Party. It is, however, worth looking at. Here’s an extract from the letter she received from the Labour Party:
Note that the details of the allegations are not identified in the letter, but she is warned any future behaviour of a similar nature will result in further disciplinary action. This doesn’t surprise me: a feature of disciplinary processes in modern organisations is a lack of details. Both managers and HR prefer woolly terms such as “abusive conduct” in lieu of details because it gives them greater flexibility in the process and hamstrings the employee’s defence. It is also highly unethical and, quite likely, illegal so the best thing an employee can do when faced with a letter like this is to lawyer up. Unsurprisingly, this is what Hodge has done; here’s an extract from the response:
Indeed. But the worst aspect of what the Labour Party are doing is something very common in HR disciplinary procedures. The language of the letter implies all they have is an allegation, nothing is known, and minds shall remain open while an investigation takes place and the truth determined. However, it is almost certain that the management know exactly what happened, they have formed a narrative (which may or may not match what actually happened), and determined the outcome already. HR is merely told to follow a process which leads to that outcome and, HR being what they are in most organisations, just do what they’re told legality and ethics be damned.
The thing to understand when faced with a letter like this – or even an “informal chat” – is that you think you’re on Stage 1 of a fair and open process, whereas the management are on Stage Finale of a process that’s anything but. You’ll be there thinking you’ll have an opportunity to mount a defence in due course, but before you know it the process has whipped past you without you even realising it. Remember that quick chat your boss had with you in the corridor about a possible HR issue? Yeah, that ticks the box saying the matter was fully discussed with your hierarchy. And the time you asked for details, and they said they’d “get back to you later”? That was the meeting you should have walked out of, because on your record it says you offered no explanation for your behaviour when given the opportunity. The way to deal with this is exactly as Hodge has done: throw a large monkey-wrench in the works and bring the whole process crashing to a halt.
The second you start to cooperate, you lend legitimacy to the process being used to destroy you, and if you don’t protest loudly and vigorously management and HR can claim afterwards that you never complained. Hodge has done the right thing here, and I suspect Labour are now staring down the barrel of a humiliating climbdown, perhaps with a hefty bill for damages attached.
The real scandal here is how common these unprofessional Kafkaesque tactics are used as standard by modern managers, endorsed by ineffectual HR departments. All it takes is one or two savvy employees to work out what’s going on, and the company is in serious trouble. This is why organisations should prioritise appointing principled managers supported by a robust HR department, and worry less about hounding employees for not being sufficiently on-message.