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CSIRO's bully-busting unit set up following accusations of toxic workplaces

Noel Towell

Published: April 28 2014 - 11:27AM

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Government science agency the CSIRO is setting up an internal bully-busting unit amid the fall-out from the accusations of toxic workplaces that have dogged the organisation for several years.

The leader of wide-ranging investigation into the claims says that many improvements have been made at the CSIRO but was concerned that more than half of the staffers who responded to a recent survey said they would still be afraid to speak out about workplace bullying.

After the second phase of a wide-ranging probe into the CSIRO's workplaces around Australia only two managers are being recommended for code-of-conduct investigations, after 110 complaints of bad behaviour were probed.

The organisation's staff association has accepted the findings of the report and says the CSIRO is ready to learn its lessons and move on from the issue, but not everyone is happy, with one former scientist dismissing the investigation and report as a "conspiracy" and another describing it as a "political stunt".

The report by former Commonwealth Ombudsman Dennis Pearce says that the issue of bullying at the CSIRO, which reached fever pitch in late 2012 and early 2013 has been substantially addressed by management action in the past year.

He was commissioned by agency's management in February 2013 against a background of a determined campaign by a group of disgruntled scientists and calls from the Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella for an inquiry into the agency.

Dr Pearce's first report, published in August 2013, found there were problems at the CSIRO and "pockets" of particular concern  but no toxic workplace culture or widespread bullying.

Phase two of the inquiry, which has now been handed to the organisation's management and the Parliament, repeats the call for permanent integrity unit to be set up and notes that CSIRO has already begun the process.

Dr Pearce wrote that misconduct proceedings should be brought against two individuals but said that figure should not be used to understate problems at the CSIRO.

"This did not mean that we were satisfied that the behaviour of a number of other persons was above reproach," the investigator wrote.

"In a number of cases this resulted in us concluding that a staff member appeared not to have acted properly but that the best way to deal with the situation was through counselling, training and other action rather than disciplinary sanctions."

CSIRO Staff Association Secretary Sam Popovski welcomed the Integrity Office within CSIRO, but said that staff had to be involved in its set-up.

"The Integrity Office is a positive step but unless it is established in consultation with staff and their representatives, it may not attract much confidence or trust," Mr Popovski said.

But Dr Andrew Hooley, founder of the Victims of CSIRO, said members of his group reported a "100 per cent" dissatisfaction rate with Dr Pearce's process.

"In many cases the investigator has not investigated the veracity of the responses to complaints, it's just been accepted that the CSIRO response is the correct response, rather than testing it," Dr Hooley said.

"An unintended consequence of this is that there are people now who thought they were given a reasonable opportunity to address their grievances but it was just an exercise to try to shut them down and now they're considering legal action.

"That's a consequence of an investigation that was basically a political stunt."

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