Civil service to step up fight against bullying after thousands say issue not taken seriously

Less than half of the civil servants who replied to the survey felt appropriate action was taken when bullying had taken place


Picture: Holyrood

The civil service will embed an inclusive leadership standard into its success profiles recruitment framework after a survey revealed thousands of civil servants who have experienced bullying, harassment and misconduct at work don’t believe these issues are taken seriously.

In a survey of 18,898 civil servants – the majority of whom had experienced bullying, harassment or misconduct – just 37% said they felt it was safe to report these issues. Only 27% agreed that “It is safe to challenge inappropriate behaviour.”

The report, published yesterday, is the conclusion of a review by Sue Owen, permanent secretary at the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport and civil service diversity and inclusion champion. The review was commissioned by Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood following years of annual People Surveys in which the proportion of civil servants reporting they had been bullied or harassed remained virtually unchanged.


The leadership standard will be developed during 2018 and rolled out in early 2019 as part of the overhauled recruitment system. It is one of a number of tools the civil service will develop in an effort to address the issues raised in the report and foster a more inclusive workplace.

The survey was not representative of the civil service as a whole because it specifically sought input from people who had experienced inappropriate behaviour. It was “a vehicle for exploring the views of those with relevant experiences or views”, the report said.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they had experienced bullying or harassment at work. More than three-quarters said they had seen bullying or harassment taking place.

By contrast, around 11% of civil servants said they had experienced bullying or harassment in the preceding 12 months in the last People Survey.

Instances of bullying included being humiliated in front of colleagues, overbearing micromanagement and shouting. The report also described discrimination on grounds such as age, race, gender, disability or ill health. “One of the more frequent grounds for discrimination was on working pattern or flexible working,” it said.

Just 42% of individuals said they felt bullying, harassment and misconduct were taken seriously where they worked, and the same proportion disagreed. Forty-six per cent said they felt appropriate action was taken when bullying was found to have taken place.

The majority – 82% – said they knew how to report bad behaviour. This fell to 62% of those who had been in the civil service for less than a year, and the number varied across departments.

There has been “continued work by departments and teams to address bullying, harassment and misconduct, in many cases with positive results”, the report said, but acknowledged this was “not yet translating into what individuals report as their reality”.

In the report, Owen said: “People are looking for clearer evidence of bullying, harassment and discrimination being tackled in their workplaces, and without that do not feel it is worth speaking up and reporting.

“We also need to improve how our processes work where people do speak up, so that they reach timely conclusions and all parties feel better supported.”

The report set a target to increase the proportion of people telling the People Survey they have reported instances of bullying, harassment and discrimination. To achieve this, it said departments must increase the visibility of actions to address these behaviours.

The civil service employee policy team will also “reform and improve” arrangements for tackling these behaviours. It will provide more ways for employees to report concerns, make policies and guidance more accessible and appropriate and review how investigations are carried out.

Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham called the figures “deeply worrying”. He said trade unions must work with employers to “make these behaviours a thing of the past”.

“Prospect has worked closely with Sue Owen and her team but much remains to be done. Individuals need the confidence to speak up and the certainty that matters will be addressed and they will be supported when they raise concerns,” he said.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, said the findings "come as no surprise". He said spending cuts had led to "a culture of bosses demanding more and more and the creation of an ever more hostile environment for the workforce".

“Ministers have not helped the situation by insisting on a culture of 'no dissent', with workers being disciplined for not displaying the 'correct' behaviours and attitudes."

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "Bullying and harassment has no place in the workplace. While instances of this kind of behaviour in the civil service remain low, it is right that we understand how and why it happens so that we can best address it and ensure staff feel happy and supported at work.

"As the review shows, there is still work to be done to ensure that the entire civil service is fully inclusive. We are providing more opportunities and routes to report bullying and harassment, and reviewing the process for investigations to ensure that it is more independent, transparent and timely".

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