Senior leaders in the Foreign Office are committed to fixing the department’s “persistently high” levels of bullying, harassment and discrimination, civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm has told MPs.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office had the highest levels of discrimination and bullying and harassment reported in the 2022 Civil Service People Survey among major departments.
Some 12% of civil servants said they have been discriminated against at work in the past 12 months, and the same proportion said they have been bullied or harassed at work in the same period. In comparison, the average across the civil service was 9% for both measures.
But Chisholm said the FCDO’s leadership are “absolutely clear that they're not satisfied with the results”, but they are no one-off.
“It's actually been persistently high, it's not just a very recent phenomenon," Chisholm told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee today.
He said the government looked into whether the high levels could be because of the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development in 2020, or from the pressures of dealing with the Russia-Ukraine situation, but found that “actually it’s been high for quite a long time”.
This is partly explained by “some special features” in the department, particularly in the Foreign Office section, such as the fact more than half of its workforce is employed in other countries, Chisholm said.
“General approaches across the Foreign Office are less effective at making sure that the way in which they deal with people in the High Commission in Islamabad is as good as the way in which they deal with people in the embassy in Madrid, etc,” he said.
Just five organisations in the civil service reported higher levels of bullying and harassment than the FCDO in the 2022 People Survey: the UK Space Agency; HM Prison Service; the Defence Electronics and Components Agency; the Scottish Prison Service; and the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.
And only six reported higher levels of discrimination: the Attorney General's Office; HM Prison Service; the Serious Fraud Office; the Defence Electronics and Components Agency; Estyn; and the Scottish Prison Service.
Chisholm said the FCDO recognises it has "persistent issues" with discrimination, bullying and harassment and said permanent secretary Sir Philip Barton is “100% committed in trying to fix that”.
The department launched a new dignity and respect at work policy in December which “they are really driving a focus on”, Chisholm said.
Fiona Ryland, the civil service’s chief people officer, added that the department is using the People Survey scores, which internally include much more detailed data by team within a department, as a measure of rating managerial performance.
Cabinet Office ‘implementing respect and inclusion review recommendations in full’
The Cabinet Office has had similar issues with discrimination, bullying and harassment and completed a respect and inclusion review in July, which called for stronger leadership to embed a culture of respect and inclusion “from the top” down.
The review made 61 recommendations which are being implemented in full, Chisholm said.
“Some of those were quick wins, some of them take a longer period of time,” he said.
This includes ensuring officials are confident in raising concerns. “We’ve had a particular focus on that in the Cabinet Office, both encouraging people in staff sessions at team level but also creating fair treatment confidence as a way of trying to do that,” Chisholm said.
“We've also introduced an option for external investigation and external decision makers [so] the people feel that there's no sense in which local management might be influenced in the wrong direction.”
Chisholm said next year's People Survey will be very telling in whether the changes are working.
Implementation of Sue Owen review 'has mostly worked'
In the civil service overall, there has been improvement in recent years, with the levels of discrimination reported falling from 14% in 2018 to 7% in 2020 in the People Survey, and going from 11% to 7% for bullying and harassment in the same period, but this has since stagnated.
“Obviously, we'd like to go further but it's a substantial improvement,” Chisholm said.
In response to the poor 2018 results – which were the highest since the People Survey began in 2009 – the then-cabinet secretary commissioned Sue Owen to review the approach across the whole civil service to dealing with bullying, harassment and misconduct, which was published the same year.
Chisholm said a whole set of actions recommended in the report have since been implemented, and these have "mostly worked", leading to improvements in civil servants understanding how to raise a concern and seeing that action has been taken as a consequence of their complaint.
There is also more confidence in case handling, according to Chisholm.
“One of the recommendations from Sue Owen’s report was to establish a centre of excellence independent investigation service and that has been put in place and people do have more confidence in that,” he said.
The People Survey results back up Chisholm's claim on action, with 29% of respondents saying appropriate action has been taken to address bullying and harassment behaviour compared to 16% in 2019.
But the proportion of civil servants reporting bullying and harassment in the survey has dropped from 40% to 39% since 2018 – after a brief bump up to 50% in 2019.