‘Swearing and mocking colleagues seemed unremarkable’: HMRC workplace abuse revealed

Report author unable to find a single person in tax and benefits department who has confidence in the grievance process

Photo: HMRC

By Richard Johnstone

04 Feb 2019

A review of the workplace culture has concluded that civil servants at HM Revenue and Customs face both abusive and abrasive behaviour but do not have confidence in measures to improve conditions.

The report by former John Lewis personnel director Laura Whyte, who was commissioned by HMRC’s executive committee to review whether the department meets its own standards of respect at work, uncovered “a significant amount of so-called low level poor behaviour” that would not be acceptable in other environments.

“Swearing, breaching confidentiality, mocking colleagues, seemed to be unremarkable,” according to Whyte. “This creates a snowball effect where the environment may not feel a safe space for some colleagues, and more serious or extreme behaviours may emerge.”


Staff in HMRC face both abusive behaviour, defined as when individuals realise they are causing harm, and abrasive behaviours, in which an individual does not realise the impact their behaviour has on others.

Whyte's report said she “did not find any individual within HMRC who had confidence in the grievance process”.

Following nearly 1,400 contributions to the review from civil servants, as well as 90 interviews and 11 focus groups in 6 locations, Whyte concluded that “it is fair to say that HMRC does not currently fulfil its ambitions to create a great experience at work”.

Stories from HMRC staff

Whyte’s review highlighted a number of commons concerns about working in HMRC.

These included:

HMRC lacks common courtesy: Staff struggled to remember the last time they were thanked for a job well done. There was also dismay over the organisation’s “email culture” and a hope that staff could get better at “simply talking to each other without laziness, apprehension or the need to always have an audit trail”.

Bullying and disrespect in all directions: Contributions highlighted that this isn’t always top down in HMRC, although staff from lower grades were less likely to have their views heard. Although some staff felt those at senior grades were given a “free pass” when they misbehaved, managers felt that their seniority meant they were “supposed to just take it [unacceptable behaviours]” and there was a sense that teams could isolate line managers.

Staff treated as cogs, not people: The report said that a dehumanising work environment for staff working in contact centre environments was described “extensively”.

Failure to remove barriers for disabled colleagues: There was a need to remove barriers for disabled colleagues, both those with physical impairments and poor mental health. Physical disabilities were seen as creating obstacles for managers to navigate, while those experiencing poor mental health as a barrier to work were not believed.

Environment isn’t fit for purpose: The importance of managers and leaders ensuring a safe environment came up repeatedly, according to Whyte, ranging from concerns over the cleanliness of offices, to “troubling” reports of health and safety not being taken as seriously as it should within certain parts of the organisation.

Lack of investment in capability: Training both on management skills and job skills had been “constantly diluted”, with change and challenge seen as threatening in some parts of the organisation. “There is a sense of a blame culture in HMRC and that people are too keen to find fault and not forgive it in HMRC. If you challenge behaviour, make a complaint, or do anything out of line you are seen as a problem.”

Among the six recommendations for reform in Whyte’s report was a call for an “urgent redesign of the grievance process”.

“This should include more widespread and robust use of mediation and early resolution. Other policy areas that are interrelated and would benefit from revision include discipline, conduct, whistleblowing, and how we dismiss, suspend and investigate.”

Other recommendations included a simplification of human resources policies; improved governance and assurance around recruitment, promotions and appointments; and a review of how work-related absences are handled. It also said the department should set out standards of behaviour more clearly, actively signposting what happens when people fall short, and for a review of the process by which reasonable workplace adjustments are agreed and implemented.

'Not everyone feels respected'

In her report, Whyte said HMRC “has a values set built from collective discussions and that there is a real determination to uphold this”.

“Having this collective understanding and desire to improve is a fantastic place to start,” she said.

However, “It became clear as the review got underway that not everyone working in HMRC feels respected at work, all the time”. Many people also felt reporting unacceptable behaviour would never lead to a positive outcome. “This was disappointing and at odds with the ambitions set out in the HMRC values.”

Whyte said she would return to HMRC both later this year and in 2020 to hear what progress has been made on her recommendations. "I know from my conversations with HMRC’s leadership that they are committed to addressing this issue,” she added.

In its response to the review, the tax agency said that as a large organisation, “HMRC will unfortunately have issues with employee behaviour, and there will be a number of ongoing cases under investigation at any given point in time, this is not about any specific case.”

A spokesperson said DCMS perm sec Dame Sue Owen's review on bullying, harassment and misconduct review in the civil service had “acted as an important reminder of how important this issue is". They added: "As one of the biggest employers in the public sector, we want to ensure we are doing all we can to keep colleagues safe and ensure they work in a positive and tolerant workplace”.

In a statement, HMRC chief executive Sir Jonathan Thompson, said he “takes seriously the scale of the challenge that HMRC has”.

He added: “As a result of the report, we will take forward immediate, fast-paced work to reform our policies and processes, make our data systems more robust, and most importantly communicate more clearly what behaviours we expect to see.

“It is for HMRC leaders to champion and take forward this work and for HR and other specialists to support – but we all have our part to play in responding to the Respect at Work report.”

Responding to the report, Paula Houghton, the president of the ARC trade union representing senior staff in HMRC, said the report highlighted issues the union had been raising for a while.

“The report will not have been easy reading for HMRC and does not shy away from the difficult issues raised by a broad spectrum of those involved in the research. We welcome the honest and robust nature of the recommendations, and are keen to engage with HMRC to assist with the improvements and recommendations contained within it.

“We also look forward to working with the department to reform those policies and practices identified as issues within the report.”

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the report "highlights many of the concerns our members have raised within HMRC".

He added: "The union has no confidence in the grievance procedures at the department and where staff raise concerns about abusive behaviour, they are ignored.

“The damning fact that report authors could not find one member of staff who has confidence in HMRC grievance procedures tells its own story."

Whyte’s review was published after reports that a senior civil servant at HMRC has been sacked over catalogue of sexual misconduct claims by five junior female employees.

According to the Guardian, Mark Nellthorp was dismissed from his position as a deputy director in September after some of the grievances were upheld. He is understood to be appealing against his dismissal and did not respond to requests for comment from the newspaper.

Responding to the revelations, HMRC chief people officer Esther Wallington said: “Sexual misconduct and bullying of any kind have absolutely no place in a modern and diverse organisation such as HMRC. When serious accusations were made recently which led to gross misconduct being found, we didn’t hesitate to take firm action resulting in dismissal.

“While we have no evidence of widespread serious misconduct, we will not rest until we are satisfied that all our staff work in an environment free from bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct. Last year, we commissioned an independent, thorough review into how we handle and respond to such accusations across HMRC and are speaking directly to our people about its findings to ensure that all our staff work in a safe and positive environment.”

Read the most recent articles written by Richard Johnstone - Building the future: Steven Boyd on making government property work for the civil service

Share this page