The Conversation

Dominic Raab’s defence against bullying claims is that he is always ‘professional’ – but that doesn’t stack up

Is Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, a bully? This is what Adam Tolley KC, the barrister leading the investigation into Raab’s behaviour towards civil servants, is attempting to find out. Is Raab simply a tough boss who sets high, “professional” standards for his team? Or does he make unreasonable demands of colleagues and humiliate those who fail to fulfil them?

Raab has said he can’t comment in detail while Tolley’s review is ongoing but has responded to the accusations by repeatedly asserting that he has acted “professionally” at all times. Speaking in more detail about his behaviour towards staff, Raab has said:

I think what people want to know is that their government ministers are striving every sinew to deliver for them and I make no apologies for having high standards, for trying to drive things forward.

So not a bully but just a professional with high standards.

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In citing professionalism as an excuse, Raab has placed the concept at the heart of this story. What does it mean to be professional? The sociology of the professions has a long and distinguished history, and in recent years management scholars have revived and updated this field of research. Professions scholarship is primarily concerned with understanding how occupations gain and defend their professional status, analysing the justification (or lack of justification) for the exceptional rewards accruing from that status.

Defining professionalism

As the research literature has evolved, theories of the professions have shifted from questions of structure and function to focus on power and privilege, culminating in the contemporary preoccupation with process and practice.

Through these shifting sands of scholarship, two consistent elements emerge. First, that extended training is required to develop specialist expertise and reach advanced qualification. From this “occupational closure” comes the ability to exclude others from the profession and charge a premium for services.

And second, ethical standards, which are an integral component of a professional’s extended apprenticeship and formal qualifications. From this training comes the traditional right to self-regulate within the professions. At least in the past, professionals were able to maintain their monopolistic position free from external regulation.

Underpinning both these elements comes trust. Clients entrust professionals with their most complex problems in the expectation that they will deliver exceptional quality work to the highest possible standards. To call someone “professional” may simply mean that you think they can be trusted to do high-quality work.

It is worth noting that there is nothing in the definition of the term “professional” about working exceptionally long hours or pushing yourself and your staff to the limit.

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But in equating high standards and long hours with professionalism, Raab is perhaps taking his cue from his early experiences in the City legal environment. In recent decades, the concepts of professionalism and commercialism have become blended in elite professional service firms. In this context, the goal of delighting the client by delivering the highest quality service to exceptionally demanding deadlines can translate into some fairly ferocious working practices. Indeed, the damaging consequences of overwork have become an important theme of professional service firm scholarship in recent years.

Are politicians professionals?

But Raab is now a politician – and they are not really “professionals” according to the criteria set out above. They do not have extended training in a specialised area of expertise. They are, in fact, expected to be generalists. And there are no barriers to entry because anyone can run for election – though of course there can be high barriers to getting elected to become an MP.

Nor are politicians socialised into a commonly understood set of ethical standards. On the contrary, there is enormous variation in how they behave and what they consider appropriate. In recent years, there have been many highly publicised, gross ethical breaches which have led to attempts to create and enforce ethical standards. While professionals these days can expect to be asked to comply with externally set standards, politicians remain essentially self-regulating.

Of course, Raab may not really be using the word “professional” in this precise way. Rather, he is associating it with a level of hard work and high standards. But surely Raab does not believe that professionals are unique in their commitment to these.

Raab appears to be seeking to justify tough and perhaps at times abrasive behaviour as simply being a sign that he takes his work seriously and that he expects others to do so the same. But with the exception of the former home secretary Priti Patel, no other minister in recent times – no matter how demanding they are – has been formally accused of bullying. Michael Gove, for example, is famously demanding of his staff but has not been accused of bullying.

When you call someone “professional” you are saying that you trust them to do an excellent job and to behave with the utmost integrity. It never has been, and never should be, used as an excuse for bad or questionable behaviour.

Laura Empson has received a series of research grants from the Economic and Social Research Council of Great Britain for her research into professionals and professional work.

Stefan Stern does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.