Over 500 complaints of bullying made in the civil service in last three years

Written by Richard Johnstone on 13 November 2018 in News
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Government says bullying and harassment is rare in government, but insists all allegations are taken extremely seriously

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At least 551 complaints of sexual harassment or bullying have been made by civil servants in the last three years, according to freedom of information requests to government.

The investigation by the Guardian revealed the complaints were made across only 21 government departments and agencies, meaning the true total is likely to be higher.

The total figure includes 95 staff who have complained about being sexually harassed, according to the report.


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The data includes 362 complaints from staff at HMRC since 2016, as well as 21 from the Treasury, eight from the Foreign Office and seven from civil servants at the now Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (previously the Department for Communities and Local Government).

The Guardian reported that it was not possible to say how many civil servants had been subject to discipline proceedings based on the allegations because of the paucity of data provided by departments. Many departmental responses failed to give figures or only provided limited details such as “fewer than five” due to the risk of identifying individuals.

The snapshot comes after civil servants used a Whitehall review published in September to demand clearer action to tackle harassment.

The review of the way the civil service handles harassment, bullying and misconduct allegations, led by Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport permanent secretary Sue Owen, found staff want to see more evidence of managers acting to enforce “zero tolerance” policies and better support for workers considering airing grievances.

Owen, who is also the civil service diversity and inclusion champion, was asked to conduct the review after the 2017 Civil Service People Survey revealed a lack of progress in rooting out bullying, harassment and misconduct – something the then cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood described as his “one disappointment” with the dataset.

Owen said her review had sought ideas to drive improvement from HR teams, staff networks, unions, and an anonymous online survey that drew 13,000 responses from workers across 80 civil service organisations.

She said that while there was strong support for ensuring the civil service had a culture of dignity and respect in all teams, there was a desire for “greater clarity” on unacceptable behaviour in the workplace and “visible action” on enforcement.

“While colleagues have heard our commitment to tackling harassment and misconduct, many of you do not feel you have yet seen it happening around you,” Owen said in a blog post outlining her findings.

“You are looking for much clearer signs of action being taken, issues and individuals being tackled, and, therefore, that this commitment is genuine.”

Responding to the Guardian’s figures, a government spokeswoman said: “Bullying and harassment has no place in any workplace, including the civil service.

“The most recent survey of staff shows incidents of this nature remain rare, but all allegations are taken extremely seriously, investigated promptly where appropriate and always dealt with in the strictest confidence.

“The government published a comprehensive review into tackling bullying and harassment in September and we have further strengthened the routes for staff to report bullying and harassment to ensure investigations are transparent and staff are fully supported. We are listening to staff and taking action.”

Responding to the figures, Amy Leversidge, the assistant general secretary of FDA trade union said bullying and harassment had affected the union’s members. “I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as saying it’s always on hierarchical grounds that bullying happens,” she said. “It’s a very complex picture.”

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, added said the amount of bullying and harassment complaints made by civil servants was “staggering”.

He added: “It’s particularly concerning that only a small number have resulted in disciplinary action being taken.”

About the author

Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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