What does the Sue Gray report teach us about workplace culture?

People Management consults the experts and explores the takeaways for businesses from the long-awaited publication

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After lengthy enquiries and investigations into a number of social gatherings held by employees at 10 Downing Street under the height of lockdown restrictions, the final report from senior civil servant Sue Gray revealed multiple issues around the workplace culture created there.

From excessive alcohol consumption to complicated leadership structures, the report said there was “significant learning to be drawn from these recent events which must be addressed immediately across government”.

People Management takes a look at the key lessons that all employers can take away in terms of managing their organisations.

Blurred lines and boozy culture

A key debate in any discussion regarding the Number 10 parties is the blurring of lines between work meetings and social gatherings, with the report highlighting a number of workplace events where there was “excessive alcohol consumption”.

“The excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time,” the report said, calling on government departments to ensure they each have a “clear and robust policy in place covering the consumption of alcohol in the workplace”.

Lisa Seagroatt, managing director of HR Fit for Purpose, warned that a boozy culture was something all organisations needed to be wary of. Employers “should ensure they have a clear policy around alcohol and drugs in the workplace to ensure clear boundaries are in place for everyone,” she said.

Echoing this, Chris Preston, director and co-founder of The Culture Builders, also cautioned that having a drinking culture in an organisation could create divides between colleagues, with there being a “fine line between people socialising and being happy together and those drinking lots to be part of the in-crowd,” he said.

The Gray report said that in some cases, junior members of staff believed their involvement in events was permitted because senior members of staff were there, with the report saying: “The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.”

Workplace drinking “needs to be monitored, be in moderation, and people need to know why they are having a drink,” said Preston, adding: “Leadership can be demonstrated here in what moderation looks like.”

Inability of staff to raise issues

Another major concern raised in the report was that staff who wanted to raise concerns about behaviours they had seen in the workplace at times felt unable to do so, with Gray stating: “No member of staff should feel unable to report or challenge poor conduct where they witness it.”

The government has since introduced measures to allow online and in-person reporting, which Gray said was “reassuring to see”, adding: “I hope that this will truly embed a culture that welcomes and creates opportunities for challenge and speaking up at all levels.”

The culture of any organisation is set from the top, said Seagroatt, meaning in this case the prime minister was “responsible for ‘setting the tone’ just as with any other leader”.

“If the leadership is poor, this trickles down from the top to the bottom of any organisation, affecting morale, turnover, performance, and employee mental health and wellbeing,”  Seagroatt cautioned, adding that a healthy workplace culture is one that “creates an environment of psychological safety for its employees”.

Accountability and remediation

As part of an official statement, Johnson acknowledged the report “emphasised that it is up to the political leadership in Number 10 to take the ultimate responsibility”, adding: “And of course I do.”

“There have been changes to the organisation and management of Downing Street and the Cabinet Office with the aim of creating clearer lines of leadership and accountability and now these need the chance and time to bed in,” Johnson said.

While acknowledging that cabinet ministers were under immense pressure during the pandemic as they were charged with executive decisions, Preston warned that for any organisation, “the ultimate maxim is ‘don’t let what you do drive who you are’ – in other words, don’t use the tough stuff as an excuse for bad behaviour.”

“You must still have high standards even when you’re going through difficult times. If you think ‘we’re making life or death decisions here, that’s ok, we’re different’, then you’re divorcing yourself from the rules you are making,” he said.