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Survey wording blamed for high result on bullying in NSW public service

The NSW Public Service Commission will respond to a damning survey that found half of all public servants had witnessed bullying and a third had been bullied, by rephrasing its questions.

A new survey will be conducted this year with ''improved relevant questions'', after the commission expressed doubt that employees understood the definition of bullying.

Public Service Commissioner Graeme Head had promised a comprehensive response to combat bullying after the 2012 employee survey uncovered a significant problem in the NSW public service, including two-thirds of health workers stating they had witnessed bullying.

But, more than a year on, little action has been taken and the annual State of the NSW Public Sector report has instead questioned whether ''behaviour that survey respondents reported as bullying would generally be regarded as such''.

A directive had been issued to all agency heads to outline what they were doing to combat bullying last year. They each responded they had policies in place.

In trying to explain the disconnect between what the staff and supervisors were saying, the report pointed to the Victorian research finding that ''the line between disrespectful behaviour and bullying is blurred and subjective''.

A spokeswoman for Mr Head said bullying was unacceptable and would not be tolerated.

''The immediate challenge is to work out why, despite the many anti-bullying measures which NSW public sector agencies have in place, 29 per cent of respondents to the 2012 People Matter Employee Survey said they had been bullied in the previous 12 months,'' she said.

Government managers had complained to the commission that ''attempts by them to address employee performance issues might wrongly be seen as bullying'', she said. Performance management systems were being scrutinised.

Public Service Association assistant secretary Steve Turner said the courts had found last year that a Work Cover employee had been bullied by managers through the use of performance management, and he believed the practice was widespread. ''Performance management does lead to bullying and it's terrible that managers don't conduct themselves properly,'' he said.

Mr Turner said the policies to promote dignity in the workplace that departments had signed were not being implemented.

The commission will meet with unions and public sector leaders to examine how to promote workplace cultures free from bullying. A guide to ethical conduct ''including clear advice for managers and employees on appropriate and respectful behaviour towards colleagues'' would be published later this year, the commission spokeswoman said.

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