Report on bullying in defence forces stresses need for clarification of terms

The difference between bullying and ‘robust training’ for new recruits in the Irish Defence Forces needs to be clarified for both recruits and their instructors. This is among the main findings of a recent report on military human resources, published in December 2008. The report was conducted by the Independent Monitoring Group following allegations in 2002 that bullying and harassment were rife among the 10,500 personnel in the Irish Defence Forces.

In December 2008, the Independent Monitoring Group (IMG) published a report – The second report of the Independent Monitoring Group – which highlighted the need for a distinction between bullying and ‘robust training’ in the Irish Defence Forces (Óglaigh na hÉireann). The report is the latest stage in a process which began in 2002 after allegations were made that bullying and harassment were rife among the 10,500 personnel in the Irish Defence Forces. It reviews the progress made by the Permanent Defence Force since the IMG published its first report on this issue in 2004.

Findings on bullying and harassment

In 2002, a report by the External Advisory Committee on the defence forces concluded that unacceptable harassment, bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment existed in the Permanent Defence Forces (see ministerial speech, April 2002). The 2002 report found that 34.7% of women and 26.6% of men – corresponding to 29.6% of all personnel – experienced harassment at the workplace. Over 78% of women and 72% of men reported that the person responsible for the harassment occupied a more senior position. Bullying was experienced by 26.5% of all respondents, according to the report. As with harassment, the bullying was attributed to people of higher rank. With respect to sexual harassment, more than 30% of women indicated that they experienced it in the form of offensive jokes and sexist remarks. Over 25% of women said that they had been subject to offensive remarks about their physical appearance, while almost 23% of women and 1.7% of men reported that they had received ‘unwelcome physical contact’.

Legitimate military instructions

According to the recent 2008 report, few allegations of such behaviour have been made since the first IMG report in 2004, either through the internal complaints procedure or the new Ombudsman for the Defence Forces (ODF). The report concludes that this shows that the culture within the organisation no longer tolerates bullying and harassment. In fact, concern has arisen among focus groups that ‘a minority of recruits in training challenge legitimate military instructions on the grounds of inappropriate behaviour or health and safety, either through ignorance or as a means of avoiding particular types of work’. According to the IMG, this was ‘a matter of serious concern’, as it ‘undermines the legitimacy of the inherent and robust nature of military training’.

While corrective action was part of this ‘robust training’, and instructors and recruits were realistic about the matter in the focus groups, considerable concern was expressed that the current emphasis by recruits on ‘their rights’ was leading to ‘softer’ training, where instructors were fearful of using corrective action.

IMG recommendations

The IMG report adds:

A general perception among instructors is that, when complaints or issues arise, the system is now weighted too much towards the trainee’.

The IMG itself said it was concerned that

the pendulum may have swung too far in one direction in the last four years. The result may be that the essential robust nature of military training is in danger of being lost.

In particular, fears have arisen that corrective action measures have become too standardised and that the same measures are being used for everyone in a ‘one size fits all’ approach. The report states that it was

not necessary to apply the same corrective action to each individual for the same behaviour. What is necessary, in such cases, is that the actions required present broadly the same degree of difficulty to each individual.

The 2008 report recommends a greater emphasis during initial training on ensuring that

new entrants understand what is and what is not bullying and harassment and inappropriate behaviour.

Measures for instructors

At the same time, the instructors’ workshop on corrective action should be reviewed and wider use should be made of case studies in training instructors for implementing corrective action. The IMG report adds that other improvements should be made in supporting instructors. Starting from 1 January 2009, at least one specialised instructor course should be held in each quarter of the year, and this course should be completed even by temporary instructors. Criteria for selection as an instructor should be standardised across the Irish Defence Forces for appointments in similar institutions. Among the other recommendations for instructors is the need for: external courses, improved staffing, regular seminars and links between the training institutions.

Improving performance and selection

Another concern expressed in the focus groups run by the IMG related to the infrequency of formal performance feedback. The IMG recommended more training for junior officers in this area and the review of the non-commissioned officer (NCO) performance appraisal system, as well as the importance of strictly adhering to the agreed procedures for the system.

In addition, the focus groups revealed some ‘ongoing discontent’ about selection and interviews for enlisted personnel in particular; the IMG noted that the ODF had also referred to this issue. However, the IMG also noted that a new promotion selection system for enlisted personnel was ‘nearing agreement’ and that this will be ‘a welcome development’. Moreover, it recommended that when this new promotion selection system is agreed – along with procedures for career courses and overseas service – an awareness campaign of briefings should be conducted.

Follow-up review

Finally, the IMG said that it should undertake another follow-up review of the Irish Defence Forces before the end of 2013. This review should focus on the progress made on human resources (HR) in the Reserve Defence Force, as opposed to the Permanent Defence Forces.

Research methodology

The IMG reviewed the report in its totality and concluded that the findings that have emerged apply to the Irish Army, the Naval Service and the Air Corps. In terms of its methodology, the research included the following measures:

  • examining all relevant reports, documents and instructions within the Irish Defence Forces since 2004;
  • examining the extent to which the recommendations of the IMG in 2004 were implemented;
  • identifying evidence of cultural change by exploring the management of policies, procedures, programmes, levels of action and evaluation;
  • seeking a variety of briefings from key personnel involved in developments in the Irish Defence Forces;
  • undertaking discussion with focus groups at home and overseas to ascertain the impact of the 2004 IMG report on men and women in the workplace.

Tony Dobbins, National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway

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