Academic quits bullying helpline over outing of No 10 staff

Lancaster professor says breach of confidentiality at the charity could put workers at risk. John Morgan reports

February 22, 2010

An academic involved in a row over claims of bullying at 10 Downing Street has said he fears key workplace relations issues will be drowned out in the political controversy.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, resigned as a patron of the National Bullying Helpline today.

He said Christine Pratt, the organisation’s chief executive, had breached confidentiality requirements by publicly claiming that No 10 staff had called the helpline.

Professor Cooper also said he had “no sense” that the National Bullying Helpline had ever been politically driven.

The row began with allegations in a book, The End of the Party, by Andrew Rawnsley, that Gordon Brown had been given a “verbal warning” over his behaviour towards members of staff.

After Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary, refuted the claims, Ms Pratt stepped forward to say that “three or four” members of staff at No 10 had called the helpline.

Professor Cooper told Times Higher Education that his role as patron of the National Bullying Helpline had come about as a product of his research on workplace bullying.

“I agreed to do this charitable work. But for me confidentiality is the most important thing. I think Christine Pratt breached confidentiality by exposing the employer. That can’t be tolerated in counselling,” he said.

“I didn’t know – and I’m one of the patrons – she was going to do this. I would have told her not to do it. If you want an employee to ask for help, it’s imperative that the employer doesn’t know who that individual is. As an academic, I was stunned.”

Professor Cooper said he was worried that the individuals involved could now be identified – and that the key issues are being buried.

“As an academic, I want the issue [of workplace bullying] to be raised – but not in this way. I don’t want it to be politicised.”

He added that he believed people may now be discouraged from calling such helplines.

Lord Mandelson said today that there was a “political operation” under way against the Prime Minister.

“I even gather that Conservative Party press officers were active yesterday, guiding journalists towards Ms Pratt, assuming that she had some fuel to throw on this fire,” he said.

Asked if the National Bullying Helpline was politically driven, Professor Cooper said: “I never got a sense of that. I wouldn’t call Ann Widdecombe [the Conservative MP for Maidstone and the Weald and another of the group’s patrons] someone who would do this because of politics. She would believe in the topic.”

But Professor Cooper said he did have “misgivings” about the organisation a year ago when he became aware of a complaint centring on alleged conflicts of interest.

On the current row, he said that “maybe something good will come of it”.

“What I hope is that people realise [workplace bullying] is an issue,” he said. “Particularly during a recession and a downturn, there is much more stress on managers. It is more likely that we will have more aggressive and bullying management styles.”

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