Toxic culture, inadequate management, lack of training – the HR lessons from the Casey review

With a recent report flagging a series of failings in the Metropolitan Police Service, People Management asks what others can learn from the findings

Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

A damning year-long investigation into the Metropolitan Police found evidence that the force is "institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic”, as well as revealing an unwillingness to deal with its failures.

Baroness Casey's report, commissioned in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, has identified several internal failings at the organisation responsible for law enforcement and prevention of crime in the Greater London area. This includes reports of a “toxic culture”, “inadequate management”, poor recruitment and vetting systems, and a lack of oversight on the needs and skills of the organisation. Casey described her findings as “rigorous, stark and unsparing”.

A “boys club culture is rife", Casey said of her findings and warned that the Met Police force could be disbanded if things did not improve.

Not all businesses are subject to such a rigorous audit as the Casey review, but several of the themes from the report should act as redflags for any organisation. People Management asked experts what key indicators employers should look out for to tackle these HR issues before they become institutionalised.

No workforce plan

Casey’s 363-page report found “systemic and fundamental” problems in how the Met Police is run, saying: “The size of the Met makes it challenging to operate and also to change, but the problem, however, is not its size, but its inadequate management.”

“There is no workforce plan, no strategic assessment of the needs and skills of the organisation, and demand modelling is outdated. Recruitment and vetting systems are poor and fail to guard against those who seek power to abuse it. There has been no central record of training, so officers may well be in roles that they are not trained for,” the report adds.

As an example, sergeants and inspectors with inadequate training and heavy workloads often find themselves responsible for a lot of HR issues, according to the report. This is a result of a reduction in the number of civilian staff, including in HR, which has created administrative burdens. “Many told us about the huge loss of experience and skills from civilian staff. In practice, they provided much of the ‘glue’ that makes policing effective,” the Casey report says.

Idris Arshad, people and inclusion partner at St Christopher’s Hospice, tells People Management that training does not always solve the problem, and says efforts to improve workplace culture have to start with having the right staff and a robust recruitment process. “It needs to begin with having principles or a strategic approach. Identify the culture you need and then, from this, the recruitment should be designed to bring in people who will contribute to a positive and accountable culture,” he says.

The problem often comes down to “judgement calls”, Arshad notes, and with many police forces – and wider organisations – facing funding cuts and economic pressures, employers have to ask if they can afford this and whether they should be investing money in these areas.

“I think everyone has an accountability here: HR, leadership teams, managers and police officers themselves. The root of this problem is the approach to recruitment and that needs to be solved. That is the tougher decision to make, but the right place to start,” Arshad says.

Many of the issues raised by the Casey review are far from new, as findings of the Macpherson report in 1999 came to many of the same conclusions. The inquiry at that time followed the racist attack and subsequent murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Commenting on the Casey review, Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, says: “Stories like this are hard to digest – and often hard to even imagine. In an age when most businesses work hard to ensure their teams are inclusive, striving for equality and fairness, how is it possible for nobody to notice something is wrong? And how has this behaviour been ignored, covered up or excused away for so long?

“Where a culture of inappropriate or criminal behaviour has become institutionalised, it can sometimes be difficult to take disciplinary action. But there is an onus, a need, for employers to challenge this culture, no matter how ingrained it might be.”

Inadequate management

According to the report: “The Met is run as a set of disconnected and competing moving parts, lacking clear systems, goals or strategies. It runs on a series of uncoordinated and short-lived initiatives – long on activity, but short on action.”

This “inadequate management allows those who seek to do wrong to continue their activities and affect other officers, staff and the public”, it concludes. “But it also means mediocre performance goes unchecked, putting greater pressure on other officers to pick up the slack. It also seriously impedes the potential of good officers who are not given the support and challenge they need to progress in the organisation. Far too much is left to chance.”

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, says the Casey review clearly shows the array of problems that were occurring in the Met – such as people being bullied and sexually harassed – were not being managed effectively. It comes back to having a robust recruitment and vetting system and adequate training throughout an employee’s career. “You shouldn't be getting into a sergeant, or an inspector or superintendent’s, position, all the way up the system, unless... there's parity between your technical skills as a police officer and your social, interpersonal skills,” Cooper says. “Because if you have those skills, you [would] recognise that something is going wrong in your team.”

Leadership coach Sarah Hawke says senior leaders have to be held accountable for not challenging behaviours and tackling problems before they become institutionalised. “Senior leaders always have the responsibility to set the tone and culture for their organisation; they must be the role models for other leaders – people learn from them and how they conduct themselves,” she says.

Toxic culture: identifying the key indicators

During the course of the review, new leadership joined the Met and Casey admits they had a “daunting task” ahead of them to fix the inherent failings. The new leadership represents a welcome shift in tone and approach, she says in the report; however, “deep-seated cultures” must be addressed for change to be “sustained”.

She also states that when Sir Robert Mark became commissioner in 1972, he had “never experienced blindness, arrogance and prejudice on the scale accepted as routine in the Met”, and that although the Met is a very different organisation today, those cultures are "alive and well". While not everyone within the organisation behaves in these ways, they are the prevailing and default cultures and "the way we do things", the report says.

According to Abi Adamson, founder and EDI director at The Diversity Partnership, one key indicator of a toxic culture is when an organisation begins to “haemorrhage talent”, because a toxic organisation is less likely to take employee exit interviews seriously and is more likely to sweep honest feedback under the rug rather than confronting issues head on.

While not all firms are subjected to such a rigorous audit as the Met, this does not mean that “organisations should not look inwards”, as leaders should hold up a mirror and ask themselves if they are listening to their employees, Adamson adds.

“There’ll be many organisations that have never undertaken a thorough employee engagement survey where their employees can be completely honest about their challenges. This is crucial to understanding what’s going on within an organisation,” she says, adding that employees who work at organisations with a fear-based culture will only ever share what they think their boss wants to hear out of fear of losing their job.

Because culture is deeply ingrained in our way of working, we frequently cannot see or identify the elements of culture that contribute to our experience of a workplace, according to Rebecca Jones, director of the centre for coaching at Henley Business School. As a result, we cannot "revamp culture" – we can only transform or replicate it.

Having a very high staff turnover, a high number of incidents of bullying and harassment, high sickness levels, and low scores in employee wellbeing, engagement and satisfaction surveys are key signs that there is a problem with a company’s culture, she adds. “If indicators suggest the presence of a toxic company culture, then to instigate culture transformation [you must] to identify how you would like the culture to be and therefore what aspects need to change to achieve this,” says Jones.

Lutfur Ali, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, says workplaces should be “safe and inclusive for all, and employers need to ensure they have clear policies and deliverable strategies on EDI, including a sensible zero-tolerance to bullying, harassment and discrimination”.

These policies should be embedded in the values and wider business plans if they are to impact and influence culture, Ali adds.

Taking responsibility and implementing improvements

According to the report, despite obvious signs of major failures, such as “heinous crimes” committed by serving Met officers, the police force did not stop to question its processes – something that Cheryl Samuels, deputy director of workforce transformation (London) at NHS England, says is fundamental to truly implementing change.

When the problems are “systemic”, it is time to go back to the drawing board and review the organisation’s purpose, values and behaviours, as well as how the workforce aligns, she says.

Organisations that want to thrive in today’s context will take decisive action, hold their hands up, acknowledge the problems and take intentional action to address them through sustained efforts and not quick wins, Samuels explains. “The root of real change starts with changes in attitudes, behaviours and practices, and this will mean enduring the painful parts of change as well as the celebratory elements – it’s a journey and it takes time to break the cycle of toxicity, so leaders need to have the stamina to see it through as there are no quick fixes,” she says.

Cooper says for any organisation that is trying to route out “toxic cultures” or rectify issues before they become systemic, HR should start with the metrics: the objective stats such as labour turnover, and then the subjective feedback from regular employee surveys. Organisations – especially public institutions like the police – should also have a safe reporting system where people feel comfortable reporting bad behaviour in whatever form it takes, Cooper advises.

Ali agrees, saying: “Dealing with conflict effectively requires concerns or complaints to be addressed as soon as they arise and in a sensitive manner.”

Met responds

Responding to the review findings, Met Police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley told Sky News that he was “embarrassed and angered by this... and we want to make a difference".

"We have a real problem here. We have misogyny, homophobia and racism in the organisation. We're absolutely determined to deliver the transformation required."

He has vowed to give a full update on the work to reform the Met by the end of the month, according to Sky News.

Casey has listed a series of recommendations following her findings. Read them in full under the subheading ‘Fixing the Met’ here.