People Survey: Increasing concern departments won't act on bullying and harassment

Levels of bullying and harassment rise from 7 to 8% as more civil servants say they fear action won't be taken if they report incidents
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By Tevye Markson

05 Mar 2024

A growing proportion of civil servants who have experienced bullying and harassment but have not reported it say they don't believe any action would be taken if they were to speak out.

The 2023 People Survey, released last week, shows an increase in bullying and harassment levels and that civil servants are now more willing to report incidents. However, two-thirds of officials who said they did not report their experience of being bullied or harassed told the poll it was because they “did not believe that corrective action would be taken”.

The proportion giving this reason for not reporting bullying and harassment has risen from 63% in 2022’s survey to 66%, a three-percentage point increase.

On the other hand, reporting of bullying and harassment has gone up by 1 percentage point (pp), rising from 39% to 40%. This comes after reporting levels fell three years in a row from 2019’s people survey record-high of 51%. Additionally, for civil servants who said they reported bullying and harassment, there was a 1pp increase in the proportion who said appropriate action was taken: rising from 29% to 30%.

Levels of bullying and harassment reported in the survey have risen by 1pp, with 8% saying in 2023 they have experienced this in the 12 months preceding the survey, which was carried out in September and October, compared to 7% in 2022.

The Civil Service People Survey, which was first carried out in 2009, has been asking civil servants who say they have experienced bullying or harassment why they did not report it since 2020, giving them six options. A lack of confidence that corrective action would not be taken has been the top reason given in each of the last four years. The other reasons and their levels in this year's results were:

  • "I felt I might jeopardise my job": 40%
  • "I did not want to be seen as a troublemaker": 44%
  • "I did not know how to report it or who to speak to": 9%
  • "The behaviour stopped before I could report it": 4%
  • "I did not report it for another reason (please specify)": 19%

Where is bullying and harassment occuring most?

While the survey does not include department-by-department responses for why civil servants did not report being bullied or harassed, it does show how levels of bullying and harassment vary across the civil service.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office remains the major department with the highest levels of bullying, with 12% of respondents telling the survey they have been bullied or harassed, the same as in 2022. The department also comes out top again for discrimination levels. The Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence are next highest among central departments, at 11%, followed by the Ministry of Justice group (including MoJ agencies), the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Health and Social Care, all at 10%.

When considering all government organisations, the highest levels of reported bullying and harassment were at the Scottish Prison Service and HM Prison Service (both 15%), the UK Space Agency (13%), and the FCDO and UK Health Security Agency (both 12%).

The lowest levels among the central departments, meanwhile, were at the Government Legal Department (6%); the Treasury and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (both 7%); and the Department for Education, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, HM Revenue and Customs, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (all 8%).

At the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which hired a conflict-resolution firm last year after finding increased levels of bullying and harassment, 9% said they had been bullied or harassed. 

The National Infrastructure Commission was the only government organisation where not a single official reported bullying or harassment.

An FCDO spokesperson said: "The FCDO is fully committed to providing a safe and respectful environment for all of our staff. We have zero tolerance for any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination and take any allegations extremely seriously.

"This zero-tolerance approach extends to our overseas network, though clearly in many countries, our staff face increased levels of harassment and discrimination just for doing their job. We are proud of the important work our staff do, often in such difficult circumstances, and have robust procedures in place to support them and respond to complaints. We remain committed to doing all we can to ensure the FCDO is a safe and inclusive place of work, both in the UK and across our embassies and other diplomatic missions.”

In which departments did civil servants feel most able to report bullying and harassment?

The survey also shows the departments where staff are most and least likely to report being bullied or harassed. 

The major departments where the highest proportion of civil servants told the poll they had reported it were DHSC (46%) and the MoJ (incl. agencies) (44%).

Officials at the Government Legal Department (35%) and Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (36%) were least likely to do so.

Among all organisations, reporting levels were highest at the Charity Commission (66%) and the UK Space Agency (64%) and lowest at the Intellectual Property Office and Maritime and Coastguard Agency (both 28%).

Treasury officials say they were punished for reporting bullying and harassment

A whopping 45% of Treasury civil servants who said they had been bullied or harassed and reported it said they felt like they were punished for it, compared to the civil service average of 31%. Only at the Scottish Prison Service (58%) did more officials say they were punished.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities was the organisation where officials were least likely to say they felt they were punished for reporting bullying and harassment (28%).

The Treasury have been approached for comment.

Where do officials feel appropriate action is being taken?

There were 12 government organisations where a third or more of civil servants said appropriate action was taken in response to bullying and harassment.

These were: the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and DMCS (both 43%); the Rural Payments Agency (42%); the Met Office (41%); Ofsted (39%); the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (36%), the Valuation Office Agency and DLUHC (both 35%); and the Department for Transport (34%).

Additionally, the survey asked civil servants whether the bullying and harassment had stopped. Some 62% of UK Space Agency officials said it had ceased, while half of officials at the following organisations said it had ended: DSIT; Serious Fraud Office; DESNZ; DCMS; HMT; Building Digital UK; Acas; the Charity Commission; and DLUHC.

The UK Space Agency hired a dispute-resolution company in 2022 to investigate why so many of its staff have experienced bullying, harassment and discrimination. 

Dr Paul Bate, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, told CSW: “My priority, and that of every leader in the agency, is to create a safe and inclusive working environment so we can continue to deliver on the UK’s ambitions in space. Since launching a wholesale transformation programme, commissioning an independent review into the unacceptably high rates of BHD, and improving the resources available to staff, we’ve made significant progress – with the bullying and harassment rate dropping by more than a third. It’s clear there is still work to do but I’m confident we are heading in the right direction, and I want to thank our staff for completing the People Survey, acting with integrity and speaking up when issues arise.”

Good culture, bad culture

Officials were also asked whether the culture at their organisation allows bullying and harassment to continue. Here, the UK Space Agency results were less positive, with 74% agreeing.

The organisations most and least likely to say the culture allowed bullying and harassment to continue were:

  • Most likely: Estyn; Education Scotland; Disclosure Scotland; Competition and Markets Authority; Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority
  • Least likely: Legal Aid Agency; Office of Gas and Electricity Markets; Department for Energy Security and Net Zero; Department for Culture, Media and Sport; National Infrastructure Commission

What about discrimination?

The survey has separate questions on discrimination. Discrimination levels have remained at around 7%, with “grade or responsibility level” still the most common reason given, making up 23% of cases.

Looking department by department, the highest levels of discrimination recalled in the survey were similar to the results for bullying and harassment, with the FCDO again top among major departments with 13% - even higher than in 2022 – and the Cabinet Office, MoD, DWP and MOJ group following in tow.


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