Sir Gavin Williamson stepped down this month amid accusations of bullying behaviour. Do bullies exist in the transport sector?


A week wouldn’t be a week if we didn’t have a member of parliament needing to resign for some kind of unedifying behaviour. Arise, Sir Gavin Williamson who this week fell on his sword after a series of claims, including that he sent abusive messages to a fellow Tory MP and bullied a senior civil servant while he was defence secretary. This isn’t, of course, the first allegation of bullying in the senior echelons of government in recent times, there were claims that then home secretary Pritti Patel indulged in such behaviour and even last week Dominic Raab (nicknamed ‘The Incinerator’ according to media reports), was accused of hurling Pret a Manger tomatoes at civil servants. This is probably worse even than the odious Jacob Rees-Mogg and his pointedly snide notes on desks putting civil servants under pressure to cease working from home and return to the office. Amidst such accusations of bullying, I’ve reflected on the state of play in public transport and whether such a culture exists in our sector.

Bullying is an emotive subject, for sure, and the ‘b-word’ has been used increasingly over the years, not necessarily because the issue has increased but, in my view, as a result of greater vigilance, awareness and intolerance. Along with anti-social and prejudiced behaviour, including racism, homophobia, swearing and other distasteful antics, there has thankfully been a greater intent to ‘call it out’ and not accept it, in a way that wouldn’t necessarily have been the case when I started my career 30 years ago. However, there are still varying interpretations of what constitutes bullying and I confess to coming across transport leaders described by some as ‘bullies’ when I might have perceived their character as ‘demanding’ or ‘challenging’. The Anti-Bullying Alliance’s definition is instructive: “Bullying is the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face to face or online.”

So, is bullying an issue in transport? For sure, and that’s partly because we are such a huge industry, operating in challenging, ‘real time’ scenarios, where managers are put in pressurised situations and react to these in varying ways, sometimes with maturity and wisdom and quite often with disproportionate emotion and demands. The situation is exacerbated by the failure to provide rounded training for managers, beyond specialist ‘tools for the job’ type activity. In recent years, particularly in the bus sector, difficulty in attracting managers, partly because of a failure to keep up with pay scales in other industries, has meant, in my opinion, that the quality of managers has declined, with more and more joining ill-equipped and then over-promoted.

The inability of transport managers to understand and empathise with the conditions within which their frontline employees work means that sometimes their reaction borders on ‘bullying’. I’ve seen many managers’ patience snap after not understanding why their member of gateline staff doesn’t share the same level of enthusiasm as they do. They can’t comprehend that they view their employment as ‘just a job’ and one that has to be endured and where the tedium of standing at a gate in the freezing cold, getting abused by customers means that they will not unreasonably take shortcuts to make their day bearable, or simply will go off sick.

Bullying among frontline employees is also rife and if you visit any railway station or bus depot, for instance, there will be at least one active grievance at any one time

Bullying among frontline employees is also rife and if you visit any railway station or bus depot, for instance, there will be at least one active grievance at any one time. Senior leaders are often much worse than those further down the chain. I’m fortunate in that I genuinely haven’t felt that I have been bullied by a boss over the years, I’ve experienced more mental fatigue having inept, uninterested and absent line managers, rather than those with ill intent and bullying predications. I did, though at one transport company, report to a managing director, who had a reputation for an amazing temper and at many an executive meeting he would literally reach boiling point. On one occasion he suspended the meeting because I was refusing to acquiesce to his expletive-ridden demand to sack staff who had walked out of their workplace because the central heating had packed up and the temperature sunk below permitted levels. If they were walking out, then so would he and he just got up in the room, told us all to get knotted and slammed the door, leaving us to continue the meeting in his absence. On another occasion, he induced a walk-out of trade union representatives in one of our company council meetings because he lost his temper and then afterwards the two of us, not for the first or last time, were literally screaming and swearing at each other, after he lost his temper with me. Bizarrely, I didn’t view it as bullying because he did it to everyone in the team, so I just put it down to his temperament. If it were to happen now, I’d probably view it differently.

There was one occasion I stood up to a very senior and demanding colleague at a transport company. He scared everyone witless and once tried to force me to do something I wasn’t prepared to do. So, I called him a bully and he put the phone down on me. Then one night I was working late and under the cover of darkness, he entered my office, switched the lights off, cornered me against the wall, threatened me and then picked up everything on my desk and tipped it on the floor. He also threatened to break a colleague’s legs and vandalise his car. Things like that wouldn’t happen these days, but they did back then.

Back to the big bosses and bullying can take different guises. We all know over the years of CEOs of big owning groups and organisations who had a formidable reputation and who no one dared mess with. Succession after succession of robust divisional and operating MDs exited their businesses unable to meet the expectations of their demanding gaffers. Accordingly, their entire organisations gained a reputation as being ‘ruthless’ and when they themselves move on, their trademark travels with them. Their management teams then change, trying to ape their leader’s behaviour, thinking it is virtuous. Very soon, a lack of respect towards colleagues, suppliers and customers perniciously infects the whole organisation and common decency breaks down. I’ve seen it happen so often.

I spoke to a TOC MD a few months ago who claimed that their boss would several times a day, go through the daily log and ask all sorts of questions about the minutiae of the operation. My MD mate would spend the whole day finding and delivering the answers only for there never to be any follow-up

The nature of public transport means that many senior leaders manage by metrics, which isn’t unreasonable, but there are so many indicators that relate to the delivery of a good bus or rail service, that a lazy and overly demanding manager can very easily pick holes or ask constant questions for the sake of it, just to give their subordinates the runaround or make it look like ‘knowledge is power’ from their own perspective. I spoke to a TOC MD a few months ago who claimed that their boss would several times a day, go through the daily log and ask all sorts of questions about the minutiae of the operation. My MD mate would spend the whole day finding and delivering the answers only for there never to be any follow-up. The challenge is that in the modern transport world, with a few notable and excellent exceptions in some owning groups, there are too many divisional MDs who are ministers without portfolio and whose job consists of shuffling papers and emails, going through scorecards or logs and asking pointless questions just to justify their existence. Most do not actually get involved in developing and coaching their MDs, but instead manage by spreadsheets and nothing else.

Bullying can manifest itself in other ways. I hear of countless re-organisations that ensue which are, to an extent, processes that exude passive-aggressive type bullying of senior leaders and others. Very often, experienced professionals with impeccable track records and well respected in the sector, suddenly become defined as underperforming failures when there’s a new broom in charge. They then go through the most faceless and protracted re-organisation structures, are treated coldly, not given the right information and it is very clear that the company is going through the motions just to get to an end result of exiting them from the business. For me, this, in itself is a form of bullying, and so too those sinister and stupid performance appraisal processes whereby the contribution and skills of individuals are defined and stigmatised as ‘under-performing’ or ‘needs improvement’ quite often because HR insist on some kind of neat calibration curve being delivered through ‘forced distribution’ – basically, this means ‘only so many people can get a certain grade irrespective of their work over the year’. One career highlight for me, in fairly recent times, was a stand-off with one boss when he threatened to downgrade me in my appraisal for ‘poor behaviours in the meeting’ because I was refusing to reduce the scores of my management team just to meet the group HR director’s pathetic curve.

For all of the above reasons, I’m relieved I work for myself, but, as a supplier, I have many bosses. I’m fortunate to work for some fantastic customers, but over the years, I’ve also been, including during the sales cycle, on the receiving end of belittling, demeaning and insufferable behaviour by certain individuals, often lacking integrity and decency. It’s prevalent when, as I do, you deal with recruitment – sourcing and placing candidates and being open to hiring managers trying all sorts of tricks to avoid paying your fee or your candidate the going rate for their work. Or quite often circumventing the process to directly deal with your candidate or even playing you off for months with a competitor without you knowing.

[I] asked if he would like to meet for a coffee. His reply was short and sweet: “no not really”

Quite often, bullying comes in the guise of emails and other online activities. In one role, my boss and his assistant used to send snotty emails at weekends, whilst I have had other leaders who would make you feel worthless just by ignoring your messages. As a salesperson, you can experience such a debilitating feeling when you send well-intentioned, friendly emails, LinkedIn messages, texts or WhatsApps to folk and they just blank you or send the curtest response. A classic was a few years ago when I was briefly heading up the transport headhunting practice for a household name company and I emailed a leading rail industry professional who is now in one of the most senior roles in the sector and asked if he would like to meet for a coffee. His reply was short and sweet: “no not really”.

The rude individuals in the sector (and they are more prevalent in rail than bus) tend to be those who have always been cosseted and insulated by being in full-time employment, taking a pay cheque and never having to bring home the bacon through winning and delivering work. They forget that suppliers are only human beings trying to earn a living, just like they are. It always makes me laugh when they are so quick to call me looking for my help in finding them a job.

All in all, though, it feels like there are fewer instances of bullying in public transport than yesteryear. For all my chiding of HR departments and their sanitising of the workplace, they have gradually managed to make some of the behaviours of old intolerable and eradicated them. There’s still much work to be done and it still takes a brave HR director to challenge their CEO or MD on their own behaviours. It also needs the industry to stop shrugging shoulders about the bullies we all know exist, stop pandering or condoning or maybe laughing about their behaviour and instead work collectively to ostracise and address such antics. Of course, we return to the age-old problem that it takes guts to deal with bullies and that’s why these individuals are still at a bus depot, railway station or HQ near you. But, as Gavin Williamson’s departure illustrated, no one is untouchable.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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