The Public Service Commission's latest State of the Service report identified ethical leadership and workplace bullying as primary issues to be addressed. Although recent legislative changes diversified the options available to public servants who feel bullied or harassed, it is clear from the report that more work is needed.
Ethical leadership means that leaders act ethically in their personal capacity and in their interactions with staff. The commission says the Australian Public Service has a long history of emphasising the importance of ethical leadership and cites a study in the Journal of Business Ethics that found ethical leadership might reduce workplace bullying. Agency heads and senior executives are also required to promote the APS values and employment principles.
The commission says there is a strong statistical correlation between APS employees' engagement levels and their perceptions of leaders in the public service:
Employees who intended to leave their agency ''as soon as possible'' were less likely to agree their supervisor and senior leaders ''always or often'' act in accordance with the APS values. Where the perception is that senior leaders are not acting in accordance with the APS values, the impact on the employee's intention to leave the agency appears to be particularly powerful.
So the leadership of senior APS staff is crucial to engaging employees and reducing their desire to leave their agency.
Agencies recently implemented changes aimed at achieving this: the report outlines new practice put in place following the implementation of the APS leadership development strategy in 2011. The strategy provided a three-component approach, suggesting APS leaders must:
- know how to lead - people, processes, technology;
- behave in ways consistent with achieving results - strategic thinking, communicating well
- be a leader - self-awareness, authentic leadership, public service vocation.
The commission says these three elements are essential for engaging staff and safeguarding against bullying and negative workplace practices generally.
Under the recently amended Fair Work Act, since January 1, 2014, employees who reasonably believe they have been bullied have been apply to the Fair Work Commission for a stop-bullying order. The report notes that these new measures aim to stop ''repeated unreasonable behaviour that creates risk to health and safety''. The new measures align with the draft code of practice developed by Safe Work Australia and the Work Health and Safety Act.
APS staff have existing rights to bring bullying complaints to their agency's leaders for code of conduct breaches through established complaint mechanisms or whistleblower procedures. APS employees may also complain about another employee who is not seen to comply with section 13(3) of the Public Service Act, which requires employees to ''treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and without harassment''. This is a right of which many APS staff take advantage. In 2012-13, almost one-third of all whistleblowing reports were for alleged bullying and harassment (the most frequently cited complaint).
The State of the Service report also examines the existing grievance process for a workplace bullying victim. The commission says 43 per cent of the employees who felt bullied made a formal complaint, and half of the complaints indicated they experienced bullying for an ''other'' category reason. The commission analysed these responses and discovered two overarching factors: personal differences and abuse of power.
The commission does not, however, recommend that the APS employ a highly formal approach to addressing instances of alleged bullying, because resolving every complaint through formal misconduct procedures can be unhelpful. Managers may often be able to deal with the issues more appropriately in an informal way.
If staff are unsatisfied with the resolution of their complaint, they can request a review of action under section 33 of the Public Service Act. Interestingly, in 2012-13, reviews of complaints about performance management significantly increased, while reviews related to bullying and harassment decreased significantly. Two-thirds of agencies finalised reviews of performance-management decisions in 2012-13 compared with 49 per cent in the previous year. Conversely, bullying and harassment reviews proportionally dropped down to 18 per cent in 2012-13 from 32 per cent.
As well as a review of action, APS staff can access dispute-resolution arrangements available under their enterprise agreement or established agency procedures. The commission says 39 per cent of staff in 2013 were confident in their agency's grievance process, up from 36 per cent a year earlier.
The report also emphasises the adverse health effects arising from workplace bullying and harassment: there is a direct relationship between an employee's engagement and their likelihood of suffering a work-related injury. All levels of employees who suffered a work-related injury or illness (including injuries from bullying) showed significantly lower levels of employee engagement than those who had not.
In 2013, one in six APS employees felt they had been bullied in the workplace. Due to the increased risk of health problems for staff who feel subjected to bullying, addressing the subject should be of great concern to government agencies. The commission's report directly links bullying to reduced labour productivity, as well as to health, well-being and employee engagement.
So, despite public sector legislation, bullying and harassment remain a prominent concern for the bureaucracy. Although the options for a public servant making a complaint have been expanded, the State of the Service findings show the APS must continue to prioritise the reduction of workplace bullying.
John Wilson is managing legal director at Bradley Allen Love Lawyers and an accredited specialist in industrial relations and employment law. email@example.com