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Comment: Is our workplace culture broken?

Workplace relations ... stuck in another era?

Workplace relations ... stuck in another era? Photo: Andrew Quilty

Incompetence, arrogance, ruthlessness and selfishness. These are just a few of the particularly vile attributes that are rife in Australian workplaces, if Fairfax readers are on the money.

Yesterday we published a story titled the seven deadly career sins (adding spinelessness, laggardness and drunkenness to the above) that detailed attributes we believe would and should stifle career progression in any progressive workplace in this country.

The story was popular throughout the day, clearly striking a chord with Executive Style readers – albeit not one we expected.

Via the comments channel we received a scathing response, with the vast majority offering first-hand tales of how these exact attributes are not only present in their workplace but, in the words of many, were the only way to climb the corporate ladder.

“I don't know in which universe the above attributes are a career problem, but I'd like to live there. My experience in the corporate world suggests to me that this article is merely wishful thinking,” wrote FjordBlue.

Added Morris Davidson: “In my thirty plus years in the corporate world I have seen countless examples where selfishness, blame diversion, taking credit for others achievements, bullying, ruthlessness and sucking up to boss have been great career moves.”

Fat Cat: “As an ex-CEO and Board Chair I can assure you that the upper echelons of the corporate world is riddled with people displaying those character traits. In fact I would say it is almost a pre-requisite.”

Gnomic: “Every one of the qualities identified in this article I have found rewarded in my last workplace, in addition to sycophancy, stealing other people's work, bullying, deceit and generally being a toad.”

And on and on it went. Even human resources departments – the supposed buffer zone between management and shop-floor employees – came in for scathing commentary.

“Don't ever think Human Resources are there for anyone else but the boss and to help the company run 'smoothly',” wrote Exit. “You will be a naive employee that thinks HR will ever go in to bat for you or really support you, but they will smile politely as they discuss your career options and help to show you the door.”

Comment threads are far from scientific in terms of being a representative sampling of the broader cross section of the community, typically acting as a lightning rod for those with an axe to grind.

But you'd have to agree that it makes for fairly depressing reading, and hardly the stuff to enthuse a new generation of secondary and university graduates as they contemplate the jump into the working world.

The general tone of the Fairfax commentariat was a far, far cry from the inclusive, supportive and nurturing outward face that many large corporations like to champion.

So what's going wrong in our workplaces? Is it really true that deceit, arrogance and self-interest trump skill and experience when it comes to career advancement? Are companies walking the talk when it comes to implementing inclusive and nurturing workplace cultures, or is the rhetoric worth little more than the paper it's written on?

Tell us about your workplace culture in the comments below. Please do not name companies or identify individuals.


  • Not sure how relevant this is, but anyway... Last year I worked for a small engineering company that ostensibly prided itself on its family values, in fact included this as part of its mission statement. Unfortunately, as soon as funding dried up for the project I was spending approximately half of my time on, I was "let go" immediately, even though the directors knew I was a single father with teenage children. No consideration at all for MY family responsibilities. I and my children have been through a very hard year as a result of this.

    Patrick Smythe
    Date and time
    October 22, 2013, 8:42AM
    • My experience when I reported an area Manager to HR for being a ruthless bully . Two days later I escorted off site by security and a month later given a payout to drop my unfair dismissal. This two weeks after my 12 month review when I was told I was new bright star within the company.

      Date and time
      October 22, 2013, 10:29AM
  • Whenever someone from overseas comes here they remark about how bad it is here. They are surprised at the level of the blame game we play where departments fight each other to take the glory but shift the blame. Also, how much departments fight to avoid having to do certain tasks but want the credit for having done said tasks.

    This is a toxic culture. I don't know why we are different to the US or UK in that regard as people from those countries say it's not like that over there (and that's within the same global entity). I've worked with many of these people and they say it is more collaborative (and less bickering) over there.

    Maybe it's the proliferation of mickey mouse MBAs over here who think "if you can't measure it then you can't manage it therefore there must be something wrong with it". This culture puts people on a knife edge where even necessary jobs are threatened.

    Date and time
    October 22, 2013, 8:46AM
    • Bender ..... I have spent the last 15 years living and working overseas in 7 different countries the Australian workplace is no different to anywhere else be that Asian, Latin American, American or European. Companies do more now than ever before to try and "engage" employees I think it is the expectations of employees (more specifically Gen Y) that have changed. Employees want all the perks, work life balance etc, training etc but still complain ....

      the fish
      Date and time
      October 22, 2013, 9:39AM
    • I'm just going by what foreigners have said working in professional capacities across several different organisations. I know what it's like here and they say it's different overseas.

      Date and time
      October 22, 2013, 9:54AM
    • Our corporate culture is dominated by the personality characteristics that we interpret as leadership. Extroversion, being outspoken, opinionated for example. Controlled studies have shown this association. They have also shown that there is no apriori association between these personality traits and competence. In a worst case these personality traits come packaged with large doses of self-serving narcissism. This is one cause of toxic culture. These cultures become self-sustaining, if not colonising, when "leaders" select the like minded for advancement.

      With both overseas and local clients I observe differences in corporate culture that are often reflections of the differences between the broader cultural contexts in which they reside. If an organisation is large enough there will also be subcultures often along professional divisions. IT, accounting, executive management, front line workers etc. I have seen a group actively sabotaging a multi-million dollar project over a perception that the project should have been managed by that group. Just one example among many.

      Ultimately corporate culture as the lengthened shadow of management they bear ultimate responsibility. Unfortunately a significant number are incapable of dragging themselves away from the mirror long enough to live up to the hype accompanying their over inflated pay packets.

      Date and time
      October 22, 2013, 12:06PM
  • These comments yesterday reflect people with a bitter employment experience. They're not necessarily typical experiences. Also, bitter people are often blind to their own contribution to the situation that caused their bitterness. There are almost always two sides to every story of injustice or unfairness.

    In my own career I've had tough, imperfect bosses and I was far from perfect myself when I worked there. The management culture early in my career was similar to a military culture, top down command and the expectation of unquestioning obedience. That may have been because when I started work 40+ years ago, many bosses were WW2 vets. Since the 90s that has changed, with the realisation that a good culture requires a humanistic, encouraging approach where managers must model the behaviour they want their staff to exhibit. Sure, there are many exceptions, but I've honestly seen the exceptions becoming fewer.

    This is my daughter's experience too, as she enters the workforce after graduating. As I near retirement, I'll be leaving a national workforce that is in better shape than when I joined it. I hope I've played a small part in that.

    happy worker
    Date and time
    October 22, 2013, 8:54AM
    • "bitter people are often blind to their own contribution to the situation that caused their bitterness" - I couldn't agree more.

      None of us are perfect and invariably it is possible to identify something about people who have been promoted that isn't ideal - but it's almost always possible to identify exactly why they were promoted too (even though I think the 'Peter Principle', where people rise to the level of their own incompetence, is often in operation). However, I have never met someone still sitting at the bottom of the pile, bitterly complaining about the fact that they haven't been promoted, who I think has been genuinely overlooked despite their merits. Most of those people are blind to their own incompetence or toxicity. The more bitter they are, generally the more inadequate their work.

      Date and time
      October 22, 2013, 10:15AM
    • Wow, good to hear "Happy Worker's" encouraging prediction!

      For my part I've witnessed the opposite trajectory over a 30 year-plus span within the same organisation. It's been a swift transition within the last decade from enlightened management to a managerial style best described as Dickensian : authoritarian, manipulative, petty - Mr Bumble the Beadle would be in his element - and at once untrustworthy and mistrustful. (Telling how the dregs of humanity automatically anticipate their own character flaws in others.) Oh - and did I mention sheer incompetence? We have it raining down from above in spadefuls

      The result : a once well-functioning, naturally co-operative and therefore productive team has evaporated, both literally (through a devastating rate of attrition) and figuratively, given the paralysing effect when survivors and replacements are forced to work under these conditions.

      HR? Well, against a weight of evidence these goodly folk are still scratching their collective head as to the crux of the problem, while dispensing well-meant and anodyne advice to any plaintiff.

      Date and time
      October 22, 2013, 10:53AM
  • The advent of "metrics" as a way to calculate employees' and departments' worth is the strangling death of a good workplace. No longer do you have time to help others or do little extras as your time must be accounted for. Not to mention you spend half your time justifying what you do and filling out timesheets. It is utterly idiotic. But thats how your new "manager" justifies his job, so too bad.
    My underboss used to spend half his week jazzing up graphs for the middle boss, cos they love a graph, especially in colour. The best of those graphs went to the uberboss to justify the middle boss' job. Good to see all that value adding. Not.
    Shocking waste of effort, time, and the eating away of people's souls. Many people left my workplace when this regime began. The best people left. You got to laugh. Huge redundancies to rid us of all our excellent staff. I mean just knowing this happened, it destroys morale.

    Date and time
    October 22, 2013, 9:02AM

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