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Sue Gray report uncovers insidious effect of work drinking cultures

Senior civil servant Sue Gray’s investigation into lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street offers key lessons for businesses across the UK.

Released yesterday 25 May, the report details “failures of leadership and judgment in No 10 and the Cabinet Office”.

Several events involved staff drinking excessively on the premises of Number 10, eight of which were attended by prime minister Boris Johnson.

Security and junior members of staff, many of which objected to the events, were treated with “a lack of respect”, according to Gray.

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Victoria Short, chief executive of Randstad UK, said the report is certain to have made some leaders nervous about drinking cultures within their own organisations.

Speaking to HR magazine, Short said: “Once upon a time, senior business leaders viewed it as part of the job to ensure everyone drank up at work events.

“Traditionally, alcohol played a prominent role in the business world – particularly in high-octane environments like sales and recruitment – where it acts both as a social lubricant and a pressure release valve.

“But attitudes to wild, work-sponsored nights have had to change.”

The #MeToo movement, Short said, created a shift away from alcohol-focussed cultures and set guidelines around alcohol in the workplace.

She added that HR should take responsibility for ensuring workplaces have the right policies so employees understand what is expected.

She said: “We have put health and safety risk assessments in place for all of our work events now, with a focus on drinking responsibly and being mindful of the limit if you're driving the next day which can catch people out.”

HR’s responsibility for such behaviour has a limit though, according to Karen Watkins, founder at Rowan Consulting.

She told HR magazine: "HR should simply be responsible for setting some parameters around what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to drinking at work.

“However, like politicians, employees are grown-ups and should know what is acceptable and what is not. It's not acceptable to blame someone else for your lack of judgement - therein seems to lie the problem."

Recommendations for disciplinary action following the report, wrote Gray, were “outside of the scope” of her investigation.

However, she added that she hopes that when acting on it, parties consider that junior members of staff were attending gatherings attended and organised by their seniors.

Pete Cooper, director of people partners at Personio, said the findings highlight how vital leaders are in outlining and upholding an organisation’s culture.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “Leaders must realise that the tone of a company and its culture is set from the top. If leaders take their responsibilities for granted and set a bad example a toxic and unhealthy culture will follow.

“Those that only pay lip service to a strong core of guiding values risk losing the trust of their people and can easily see their company culture - and possibly their business in the long term - fall apart.”

Concluding the report, Gray wrote: “The public have a right to expect the very highest standards of behaviour in such places and clearly what happened fell well short of this.

"It is my firm belief, however, that these events did not reflect the prevailing culture in government and the civil service at the time.

“Many thousands of people up and down the country worked tirelessly to deliver in unprecedented times. I remain immensely proud to be a civil servant and of the work of the service and the wider public sector during the pandemic.”