People Survey: Who’s bucking the trend on bullying, harassment and discrimination?

Not all departments are improving their scores when it comes to staff reporting workplace problems
Photo: Pixabay

By Jim Dunton

06 May 2022

The just-published Civil Service People Survey boasts headline figures showing sustained progress in reducing levels of bullying and harassment and workplace discrimination.

But beneath seemingly impressive cross-government results, some departments and agencies have been presented with a worsening picture of  behaviour – including the Cabinet Office.

More than 327,000 civil servants responded to the 2021 people survey between late September and early November last year. When the results were slipped out in spreadsheet form last week they revealed the survey’s benchmark employee-engagement index was flat and pay satisfaction has fallen.

Good news contained in the figures included a year-on-year reduction in the proportion of officials saying they had been the victim of bullying or harassment, which reached 7%, down from 8% the previous year and 12% in 2019.

Also down was the proportion of officials reporting workplace discrimination: 7%, down from 8% in 2020 and 11% in 2019.

However a department-by-department crunch of the figures reveals less flattering news for some – including the ministry that is responsible for the survey and which hosts the HR function.

At the UK Space Agency, an executive agency of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, 19% of staff reported being a victim of bullying or harassment during the previous year – the largest proportion of any organisation in the 2021 survey.

The figure paints a worsening picture of bullying and harassment from 2020, when the proportion of staff reporting problems was 16%. The UK Space Agency also saw the proportion of staff who reported experiencing discrimination rise from 12% to 15% over the two years.

HM Prison Service also recorded rising levels of bullying, harassment and discrimination.

The 2021 figures reveal 18% of HMPS staff reported being a victim of bullying or harassment, up from 16% the previous year. The reporting rate for discrimination was 18%, up from 17% the previous year.

At the Cabinet Office, 11% of officials said they been bullied or harassed over the past 12 months, down from 14% in 2020. Its discrimination figures went in the opposite direction, however, edging up from 10% to 11%.

At the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, bullying and harassment reports rose from 10% to 11%, but discrimination was flat at 12%.

At the Home Office, bullying and harassment was flat at 11%, while discrimination reports dropped from 13% to 12%.

Ministry of Defence body the Defence Electronics and Components Agency managed to improve both its bullying and harassment and discrimination performance 12-month period. However, the executive agency still has some of the highest rates in the civil service.

Ten percent of its staff reported being a victim of bullying or harassment last year,  down from 18% in 2020. Reports of discrimination, meanwhile, were down from 19% to 18%.

At the opposite end of the scale, the Scottish Housing Regluator and Scotland’s Accountant in Bankruptcy insolvency service both kept a clean sheet in terms of reports of bullying and harassment – the only two organisations in the ranking of 101 government bodies to do so.

The National Infrastructure Commission reported the lowest level of discrimination, with 2% of staff saying they had been victims over the past 12 months.

Silence isn’t always golden

The people survey also gives respondents the option of declining to say whether they have been a victim of bullying or harassment, or whether they have been discriminated against. They can also clearly state that they have not encountered either problem.

On average, 6% of respondents to the 2021 survey opted not to say whether they had been bullied or harassed over the previous year. Eight percent of respondents chose not to say whether they had been discriminated against.

The UK Space Agency registered comparatively low scores for both: 5% and 4% respectively. The Cabinet Office’s figures were also below the civil service average, at 5% for bullying or harassment and 6% for discrimination.

Eight percent of respondents at the FCDO and DECA chose not to say whether they had suffered bullying or harassment over the previous year. The proportion was 9% at HMPS and 10% at the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency.

Ten percent of Foreign Office staff declined to say whether they had been the victim of discrimination over the previous year. At HMPS and DECA the figure was 11%, it was 12% at DVSA and 14% at the Scottish Prison Service.

On average, 85% of civil servants positively asserted that they had not been bullied or harassed over the past 12 months; 83% said they had not been discriminated against.

“Uncomfortable reading” for everyone 

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary at the Prospect union – which represents professionals in the civil service – said the survey findings underscored the need for proactive measures to support staff.

“The statistics on bullying and harassment should make for uncomfortable reading for employers, unions and staff alike,” he said.

“There is no place for bullying and harassment in a modern workplace- but we need to go beyond vague assertions of ‘no tolerance’.

“Where staff believe they have been the subject of – or witnessed – unacceptable behaviour they should have the confidence to raise the matter with their union and the employer.

“There needs to be a common endeavour from unions and employers to work together to make sure work is welcoming and safe for all.”

UK Space Agency chief executive Dr Paul Bate said staff across the organisation deserved “so much better” than the results indicated in the survey and that support had been put in place to help anyone bullied, harassed or discriminated against, and to encourage all staff to speak up.

“There is much to do, and I am very thankful to every member of staff for being willing to be part of changing our agency for the better,” he said.

“The first priority of every leader in the space agency is to create a safe and inclusive environment. Bullying, harassment and discrimination have no place and we are committed to stamping them out.”

Bate said it was “positive” that the 2021 Civil Service People Survey indicated UK Space Agency staff had a higher than average reporting rate for bullying and harassment. Fifty-two per cent of staff said they had reported incidents when they occurred, compared with the civil service average of 38%.

A government spokesperson said: “We do not tolerate bullying, harassment or discrimination in any form and we take all allegations extremely seriously.

“Our latest data shows reported incidents have fallen to their lowest recorded level, with a large increase in the number of people who believe appropriate action was taken, but we know there is more work to be done.

“The Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Strategy builds on the progress made in recent years and sets out clear actions for departments, including regular reviews of progress and running campaigns that support staff in raising concerns.”

The spokesperson added that the latest survey indicated 30% of respondents believed appropriate action had been taken when incidents of bullying, harassment or discrimination had been reported, compared with 14% in 2020.

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