HMRC criticised over ‘unacceptable’ workplace culture

HMRC is to take immediate action to improve its workplace culture, after a highly critical independent report found widespread examples of unacceptable behaviour, and said many of the processes designed to support employees require urgent improvement

Last year HMRC commissioned Laura Whyte, former HR director at John Lewis Partnership, to carry out an independent assessment of what it is like to work in HMRC.

In the foreword of her ‘Respect at Work’ report, Whyte stated: ‘It became clear as the review got underway that not everyone working in HMRC feels respected at work, all the time.

‘Many of the people I heard from outlined that they lacked confidence in the process, and felt that there would never be a positive outcome for reporting unacceptable behaviour.

‘This was disappointing and at odds with the ambitions set out in the HMRC values.’

Whyte said she had not found any individual within HMRC who had confidence in the grievance process, while the other policy areas recommended for specific focus are recruitment and attendance.

The report stated: ‘HMRC must obtain assurance that these policies are having their desired effect in attracting the best talent in a fair and open way, and in supporting colleagues through sickness in a nuanced way reflective of individual circumstances.’

Other policy areas singled out as benefiting from reform include discipline, conduct, whistleblowing, and how dismissals, suspensions and investigations are handled.

The report highlighted a number of policy gaps at HMRC in comparison with other departments, including not having a policy on relationships at work and a lack of guidance on the use of social media such as team WhatsApp groups.

The report stated: ‘We found that many cases of inappropriate or disrespectful behaviour were fuelled by alcohol consumption, often outside of the workplace but in work-related contexts. HMRC’s policy is to not encourage consumption pre- or during work and can best be described as “light touch”.’

Behaviours

The report highlighted that the way in which HMRC handles cases is not sufficiently supportive, saying processes do not incorporate the support all parties need, and are enacted in a way that is overly focussed on completion of task rather than empathetic treatment.

In addition, the duration of HMRC’s processes was universally criticised by all parties as lacking urgency. The average time for a gross misconduct case to be resolved was 74 days in 2017/18, with the longest of over 250 days.

Whyte’s review found that HMRC employees tolerate a significant amount of so-called ‘low level’ poor behaviours that would not be acceptable in other environments, noting that ‘swearing, breaching confidentiality, mocking colleagues, seemed to be unremarkable’.

The report argues that 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.

Whyte reported evidence of abusive behaviours, where individuals realise they are causing harm, in various parts of the organisation, and said these are often not dealt with. Abrasive behaviours are even more prevalent, in which an individual does not realise the impact their behaviour has on others. While such behaviours do not meet legal or policy thresholds for what constitutes bullying or harassment, and are not dealt with formally, they cause a ripple effect of disengagement and discontent across teams, the report warned.

The report takes HMRC to task over its efforts to provide reasonable adjustments for staff with disabilities. While the department does meet its requirements as set out in its policy, Whyte notes that in doing so the end result does not always deliver meaningful and satisfying work for the individuals impacted. Individuals in the organisation are ill-equipped to understand and support mental health conditions.

Finally, the report says HMRC does not have a systematic and data-driven approach to the management of people, and is therefore behind the curve compared to other organisations of a similar size, with the result it struggles to target its interventions and manage its risks.

The findings suggest knowledge management of cases is erratic, resource-intensive, and inconsistent across the organisation, while records do not enable HMRC to have a view of the scale of the problem globally for the organisation, or to hold those responsible to account for team performance in a structured way.

The report stated: ‘The approach to data and assurance requires a fundamental examination of the corporate approach to how HR IT systems are exploited and used in HMRC. Further investment in and exploitation of data systems should not be delayed any further.’

Recommendations

Whyte’s review contains six priority recommendations. These include policy simplification; an urgent redesign of the grievance process; strengthening governance around recruitment, promotions and appointments; and reviewing attendance management policy in the context of how work-related absences are addressed.

In addition, HMRC should clearly define its standards and actively signpost what happens when people fall short even if in ‘minor’ or ‘low level’ way.

The department should also review the process by which reasonable adjustments are incorporated, including looking at how managers communicated when adjustments had not or could not be made and it might not be possible for employment to continue in its current form.

Sir Jonathan Thompson, chief executive, HMRC said: ‘I take seriously the scale of the challenge that HMRC has. 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.’

HMRC Respect at Work review is here.

Report by Pat Sweet

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