The Independent Cultural Review of London Fire Brigade has uncovered widespread racism and misogyny within the organisation, as well as complaints of abuse from more than 2,000 anonymous members of staff.
Female firefighters reported being groped and beaten, while Muslim employees had bacon and sausages stuffed into their pockets.
The report was commissioned after 21-year-old trainee Jaden Francois-Esprit took his own life in August 2020 after being bullied at work.
Roger Kline, HR Most Influential thinker and research fellow at Middlesex University business school, said the report should serve as a warning to other HR professionals, and advised them to reflect on whether they have a similar culture.
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Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “Research is absolutely clear that leaderships need to prioritise being proactive and preventative, intervening early and not waiting for individuals to raise complaints. Only when that happens will staff really feel it is safe to raise concerns.
“One has to ask why it took an individual to commit suicide before decisive action was threatened. Unfortunately, in too many organisations, human resource practitioners have relied on policies, procedures and training to change mindsets and outcomes when what was needed was the most senior leaders putting themselves in the shoes of those abused, being proactive and preventative.
“It clearly hasn’t been happening and there will be plenty of staff wondering if this will prompt a sustained and relentless change of culture or not. HR practitioners across other employers should be asking ‘is this happening under our noses in our organisation?’ Because in some it certainly is.”
The report highlighted a major diversity issue within the London Fire Brigade (LFB). Figures from 2020 showed 95% of firefighters in the organisation were white.
However it was keen to draw a distinction between the LFB and the Metropolitan Police, saying: “Where there has been flagrant examples of police officers misusing power and allowing prejudice to shape their actions, we did not find the same level of operational bigotry.”
Sandra Kerr, race director at Business in the Community, said a top-down commitment to diversity and inclusion is a necessity for all employers.
She told HR magazine: “This report into the London Fire Brigade highlights the importance of senior leaders stepping up to ensure that organisations are a good place to work for everyone, regardless of background, gender, race or age. Gone are the days when diversity and inclusion strategies were just a nice to have; they are now a necessity as employees demand them.”
Frank Douglas, founder and CEO of Caerus Executive, told HR magazine that senior leadership allowed this behaviour to become normalised.
Douglas is also due to oversee an inquiry into broadcaster Channel 4’s workplace culture, as revealed by The Times in July 2022.
He said: “As it has been said, culture can be defined by the worst behaviours an organisation tolerates. In the case of the LFB it, was not a surprise that women and ethnic minorities were constant targets of racist, misogynistic or homophobic comments. However, by leadership turning a blind eye this sort of behaviour becomes normalised.
“That is staff believe there is no need to report this inappropriate behaviour because everyone already knows it is taking place and doing is nothing about it.
“In addition, staff believe that they will be penalised for reporting inappropriate behaviour. Lack of psychological safety, leadership accountability and consequence management are rife throughout the report. On a more fundamental level, the LFB is typical of many organisations where they, once again, conflate diversity and inclusion. Leaders believe that once they have a diverse workforce, the job is done – far from it, it is just starting.”
Recommendations from the report included the introduction of body cameras for firefighters, a historic review of complaints about racism misogyny and bullying over the past five years, and secure facilities for all women in stations.
Douglas added: “I am disappointed that the recommendations did not include bystander and upstander learning interventions, inclusive leadership framework and a deep review of de-biasing HR policies, for example. Finally, no organisation should find comfort in believing ‘this does not happen in my organisation.
“It does happen but tends to be overlooked by focusing on tick-box initiatives that mask the underlying inappropriate behaviours.”