Civil servants demand clearer action to tackle Whitehall harassment

DCMS perm sec Sue Owen says staff want greater clarity on unacceptable behaviour and more support for whistleblowers

Sue Owen Credit: CSW/Louise Haywood-Schiefer

By Jim.Dunton

06 Apr 2018

A cross-Whitehall review of the way the civil service handles harassment, bullying and misconduct has found staff want to see more evidence of managers acting to enforce “zero tolerance” policies and better support for workers considering airing grievances.

Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport perm sec Sue Owen detailed the calls as part of the initial findings from her review on tackling harassment and discrimination across departments, which was commissioned by cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood.

Owen, who is also the civil service’s LGB&TI 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 Heywood described as his “one disappointment” with the dataset.


The 2017 survey found 11% of respondents reporting that they had personally experienced bullying or harassment during the previous 12 months, a proportion largely unchanged since the survey began in 2009, and – by last year’s figures – suggesting more than 30,000 staff had suffered unacceptable behaviour in the workplace.

Just 36% of victims said they reported their issues, of those only one-fifth of subsequently felt that the problem they raised had been resolved.

Owen said it had been clear that further action was necessary and that her review had sought ideas to drive improvement from HR teams, staff networks, unions, and an anonymous online survey that has drawn 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.”

Owen said that more work was also necessary to help staff who choose to speak up about unacceptable behaviour.

“You said that the investigation process can feel mechanistic, can take too long and can feel unsupportive,” she said.

“You also said you are looking for access to people who can support and advise you in deciding what to do, particularly when first considering whether and how to speak up.”

Owen said she had already discussed the review’s preliminary findings with perm sec colleagues and that Civil Service HR had been asked to work with departments to find “quick actions” that could be taken to deal with the issues raised. The function is also due to “review and improve” its reporting and investigation arrangements.

Owen added that individual departments would be arranging sessions at which the review findings could be discussed, and the results of which which would feed back to inform her final conclusions.

She said that the anonymous staff survey was also being kept open until the end of May to give more people the opportunity to give their thoughts and experiences.

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