Some recent cases of alleged bullying, harassment and discrimination by staff at Avon Fire & Rescue Service (AFRS) were not investigated properly, an independent review has found.
Decisions and sanctions in five disciplinary cases over the last two years are “at risk of challenge” because they did not meet the required standards, legal experts concluded.
Chief Fire Officer Simon Shilton commissioned the review in February as part of his drive to root out inappropriate behaviour by firefighters and other employees, and its findings have produced 13 recommendations, all of which have been accepted.
They include a new confidential whistleblowing hotline run by Crimestoppers where staff can raise concerns anonymously, which is due to go live in the next few days.
The review, carried out by lawyers from One Legal, which advises local government, reexamined 11 internal disciplinary hearings into alleged gross misconduct since 2021.
The cases involved issues such as homophobia and sexism in the workplace, including fire stations, to consider if they were managed appropriately and the correct sanctions applied, such as suspensions.
Their report said: “The review did find in several cases that issues were investigated and considered in accordance with good practice and the outcomes and sanctions applied were within the scope of what a reasonable employer would do.
“There were however five cases where there were examples of behaviour such as bullying, harassment and discrimination that were insufficiently investigated and/or not subject to a full and robust disciplinary hearing.
“This leaves those decisions and/or sanctions reached in those cases at risk of challenge and/or have a potential impact on cultural improvements going forward if lessons [are] not learnt.”
A recent meeting of Avon Fire Authority policy & resources committee, where the report was discussed, was told that work was well under way to implement the recommendations, including more training for staff on “the difference between ‘banter’ and bullying”.
More support will be given to those who raise complaints, the service’s disciplinary, grievance and complaints procedures are under review and independent external investigators will be drafted in to work on cases.
CFO Shilton told the meeting that the service had been on a “cultural journey” since 2018 when an independent inspection raised concerns about issues including misogyny and that steps to address these would be accelerated.
He said: “It’s important we maintain a focus on ongoing improvement and that we learn lessons from the past.”
CFO Shilton said that if staff experienced poor behaviour at work, they must have confidence that the organisation would take it seriously.
Councillors heard that none of the findings or recommendations were a surprise to senior leaders.
One Legal head of law Sarah Farooqi told members: “There were a number of cases, five in particular, where our conclusion was the service did not adopt best practice in terms of undertaking the investigation and then for the disciplinary findings.
“We are not saying if it had been done differently that you would have necessarily made a finding of gross misconduct and dismissal, we are saying you didn’t get it right in terms of practice there, so it’s difficult for us to conclude whether the findings were correct.
“One thing we picked up from the cases was where people said ‘Well, it was banter’.
“It’s about making sure your staff, managers and organisation understand what’s the difference between banter and bullying and where you overstep that line, and having clear policies and training may address some of the concerns in cases like that.”
She said two or three cases could have benefited from an independent investigator because of the complexity of the complaints and that managers did not necessarily have the correct skills to lead investigations.
Bristol city Cllr Richard Eddy (Conservative, Bishopsworth) said he had no issue with almost all of the recommendations because their aim was to improve the workplace and the employer.
But he said one of them, that AFRS “should seek regular feedback from staff about values, culture, fairness and diversity”, could be open to abuse.
Cllr Eddy said: “I don’t have a problem if it’s feedback but I’m a bit suspicious that there may be room in there for it to morph into people passing on information that could lead to disciplinary action against other people, somewhat akin to the former East German secret police.
“I would just caution that I hope it doesn’t develop from that.”
Head of human resources Karen Shiel said they were looking to introduce mini regular surveys of staff.
She said: “We want to make sure it’s confidential so that people can ‘t be identified but also that we gather enough information to identify whether there may be pockets of bad or inappropriate behaviour that need more focus.
“I do believe we have a positive culture in the vast majority of our workplaces.”
LDRS, Adam Postans