Bullying culture rife, public servants say

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According to a candid new report into the culture of the NSW public sector, job insecurity and budget cuts are to blame for a rise in workplace aggression in workplaces across the state.

Premier Barry O'Farrell said the report is the first time a government has had a thorough look at the NSW public sector, “warts and all” – and the findings are not pretty.

The review found almost half of all public servants (48%) had witnessed bullying at work, while almost a third (29%) said they had been bullied in the past 12 months. A further 6% had lodged a formal complaint about bullying behaviour.

O'Farrell yesterday welcomed the report by the new Public Service Commissioner, Graeme Head, and said that despite a finding that the workplace is highly educated, a culture of bullying urgently needs to be addressed. Head said the inaugural State of the NSW Public Sector Report was the most comprehensive and first independent review of NSW public sector performance.

More than 60,000, or 16%, of NSW government employees responded to a survey which asked for their views on values of trust, service, accountability and integrity. “It is likely that a proportion of what people perceive as bullying arises from the absence of good performance management practices and organisational culture,” Head said.

Adjunct fellow at the University of Western Sydney specialising in workplace bullying and aggression, Vaughan Bowie, told the Sydney Morning Herald that budget cuts would have contributed to workers taking out frustration on colleagues and family. Bowie added that an increase in bullying was a result of the ‘trickle down’ effect. While some workers could be singled out as being inherent bullies by nature, the recent upsurge was related to a fundamentally toxic workplace culture, Bowie said. “'Bullying has been around as long as humankind, but we are finding now in this current time a confluence of factors which is leading to more pointed workplace bullying and abuse,” he said.

“I think this upsurge in violence has more to do with the toxic nature of various workplaces under the economic rationalist model where we are expecting more and more with less and less resources. People can't kick the organisation and take it out on each other or their parents or partners.”

Related story: Turn around a toxic work culture

  • Blythe Rowe on 14/11/2012 2:37:25 PM

    To be honest, looking for something or someone to blame for the bullying is a complete waste of time.
    Budget cuts etc are the realities of the working world, so we need to face these facts and look for ways to succeed in spite of the challenges. we need to be analysing the root cause and spent our energy focussing on solutions. As an ex HR Leader from some of the biggest businesses in this country, I am that passionate on this issue that I recently wrote a book titled "Bullies, Blamers, Bludgers". It talks bluntly about the three toxic behaviours which are alive and thriving in our workplaces (not just govt departments). Simply doing research, writing new policies and all the rest of the stuff, we are doing in attempt to stop bullying is clearly doing diddly squat. It is time for leaders to face up to the issues and for the employees to say enough is enough. It is time to have the hard chats, empower individuals to stand up to the bullies and quit frankly .... its time to put a rake through the govt departments who think its OK to either Bully or, just as bad, turn a blind eye and ignore what's going on around them.

  • Bernie Althofer on 14/11/2012 4:52:29 PM

    Bullies, Blamers and Bludgers can and are often one and the same person. They use covert, aggressive processes to blame others for their own shortcomings, and they do so, because they don't want to be held accountable or be made responsible for their own actions.

    Bullying is about an abuse of power and control, and bullies want an acknowledgement that their behaviour or conduct is appropriate. Unless someone pulls them into line, takes some proactive action to address their performance (either improve or be terminated in terms of employment), they continue on doing what they have managed to get away with.

    It is apparent that the issue of bullying continues to be a contentious issue and as identified in other discussion groups, can be the elephant in the room. There can be a lot of finger pointing, blame shifting (and dodging), uncertainty about how to actually respond, fear of litigation (at all levels), fear of reporting, and in some cases, a failure of organisational policies to support all involved (including families and co-workers).

    Some excellent strategies were identified in the mid 90's, and if some of these had been implemented, the current discussions may not be occurring.

    People are becoming frustrated about the lack of real action, survivors are writing their stories, media focus ebbs and flows depending on the nature of the incident and allegations, and for some, it seems that there is a lot of going up and down on the one spot with no forward movement.

  • Glen Parker on 14/11/2012 5:05:48 PM

    I agree with Blythe - Bullying needs to be addressed. The problem though is we can not put a rake through the public sector to be rid of bullies due to a culture of fear. In my observations, managers are not terminating bullies for the following reasons:
    1. fear of legal action
    2. fear of union action and/or intimadation
    3. reluctance to use a performance management process that takes significant time and effort before termination is even an option.
    In short, public sector talks the talk when it comes to bullying awareness but does not walk the walk when it comes to following through with consequences for bullying.

  • Jane Blunt on 14/11/2012 5:06:53 PM

    I agree with Blythe Rowe, 14 Nov2012, it's a waste of time to look for someone to blame because upper management is a party to it. I was 'mobbed' (that's upward and sideward bullying) when I was in the public service and HR were no help. I think Blythe's Freudian slip in the 4th last line is right: "quit frankly' which was the only thing I could do and did because I was forced to. This happened 7 years ago and I have still not got over it.

  • Stuart King on 21/11/2012 11:36:51 AM

    Great comments here from Blythe and Bernie. Research is often a call to action, books and narrative also raise conversations. The business case to take action on unsafe workplace behaviours is long past. Getting the rubber on the road requires holistic action and string leadership. Custodians of organisations need to ask the hard questions about their culture and be authentic about it. What will my legacy be in this workplace? What kind of workplace would I like to create for others that follow me? What kind of workplace would I like my children to experience? .... We all 'choose' how to behave, when to obey speed signs or when not to use our mobile phones ..... people make change. People need to choose.

  • Bernie Althofer on 21/11/2012 3:21:19 PM

    Stuart is so right in saying we need to think about the legacy we to leave. We all have the capacity to make informed choices about how we act, and whether or not we treat others with respect and dignity.

    In terms of the comments made by Jane, seven years is a long time. I think that for some people, the memories stay a life time. The pain might ease with good support networks, a strong belief in one self, and undertaking something therapeutic e.g writing a book or creating a journal. Keep believing in yourself Jane.

    It concerns me when organisations come out say they are committed to preventing workplace bullying when you see they take away support personnel such as Harassment Referral Officers, have management appointed peer support officers, and generally cut back on training across the board in relation to workplace bullying.

    Most people I know who have been bullied at the workplace did not go to work to be bullied, harassed, threatened etc. They are competent, well liked, ethical and professional. Unfortunately, it seems that for them, the focus was not on the alleged bullies behaviours, but more finger pointing and blaming of them for some 'short comings' they were perceived to have.

    Whilst the alleged bullies are seen as the ones getting results and outcomes for organisations, they will continue to be rewarded through promotion or financial incentives.

    If organisations are serious about workplace bullying, they will ask questions such as "How much does the behaviour of this/these workplace bullies cost us?", "What damage is being caused to our personal or organisational reputation because of their behaviours?"

    They don't typically ask "How can we support the target whilst the matter is being investigated?".

    We may eventually see potential employees ring organisations and ask "Can you give me an example of how you deal with workplace bullying incidents?" The response provided may determine whether or not that person takes up an employment offer.

    There is an old Indian saying "Plan for your children's children". It is about creating a legacy where people are treated with respect and dignity, differences are acknowledged, and people are allowed to work in safety.

    We have a way to go.

  • Rob on 22/11/2012 4:53:23 PM

    Employers hire bullies- and promote them to positions of power, because they are perceived as being highly competent. Bullies are perceived as possessing towering efficiency, but perpetually surrounded by idiots who never stop stuffing up. Employers don't want to look beneath the surface. If they did they would spot the real truth: that the bully creates a toxic workplace environment, and perpetually blames everyone around him for his own failings. For this reason, employers will continue to lose great employees, and forever be mystified by the fact that everyone but the bully seems so incompetent. In my experience- having broken sales records in every job I've held, then quitting when I've seen my employers absolutely refuse to acknowledge the existence of the culture of bullying- this has cost my employers millions. I've seen hundreds of brilliant salesmen and women quit, when management could have stemmed the flow by removing one single bully. New staff must be trained to replace them, at great expense. Then these staff quit, and are replaced by new staff, who must be trained...and soon quit.
    Bullying is real.
    Employers continue to deny bullying exists.
    It's costing them dearly.

  • Ruth Hadikin on 24/11/2012 11:37:18 PM

    While is isn't helpful to look for someONE to blame, it is helpful to look at the underlying causes of bullying which allow, and even inadvertently encourage bullying to flourish in workplaces.

    In "The Bullying Culture" which I co-authored with Muriel O'Driscoll (see http://bullyingculture.com), we not only studied the factors that contribute to a bullying culture in the workplace, but examined which approaches were most effective to deal with it.

    Because bullying is a symptom of a workplace culture which encourages aggressive competition rather than collaboration, confrontation rather than dialogue, and dictatorial manangement styles rather than cultivating an environment of affirmative inquiry (which fosters creativity, emotional intelligence and higher performance) - the issue has to be addressed at the level of culture.

    To be successful initiatives have to come from the top, be seen to be fully and sincerely embraced by CEO's and center around embedding a coaching culture.

    Anything less than a major cultural turnaround will simply be a whitewash, a waste of resources and won't address the underlying issue of how people within the organization (at all levels) have learned to relate to one another.

  • bullied on 14/09/2013 4:04:11 AM

    I worked in the state government public service W.A most of the employees were incompetent, no one was trained and all errors were blamed on the contract employees, Bullying was rampant. I will never work in the public service again after being made to work a 50 hour week without a lunch break and being bullied and screamed at by my supervisor and colleagues. It's for chumps and i will never go back.

  • Bernie Althofer on 16/09/2013 11:12:14 AM

    I have just finished reading Fred Lee's insightful book - If Disney Ran Your Hospital - 9 and a 1/2 things you you would do differently - Cultural Insights From a Hospital Executive Executive Who Became a Disney Cast Member.
    In terms of providing an insight into how values, behaviours and expectations can be inculcated into the workplace culture so that unacceptable deviance is not only frowned upon and acted upon, but everyone is accountable for doing something to stop it.
    There are some valuable reminders about the work of Edward Deming (Quality Management) in relation to driving out fear, and Lee makes some excellent observations about how fear 'controls' individual and organisation inertia.

    Lee also suggests that if real change is to occur, then everyone needs authority to 'fix' things without continually having to refer matters up the chain of command. He suggests that command and control models do not really help individuals or organisations.

    I did not see him mention 'bullying' in his book. However, the logical and rational approach taken in indicating how some approaches not only change behaviours, but also changed how business was done, shows that to create meaningful change, some people need to be told "Either make this happen, or leave". Some might perceive this as bullying, but as Lee has explained, when the message is delivered in the right way with empathy, some people do sit up and take notice.

    When it comes to bullying, it seems that for a number of years, individuals and organisations have been pushing and pulling around the edges and trying to get some changes happening. It appears that if some of the approaches indicated by Fred Lee are adopted, executives would actually use the data, make decisions and give instructions that "This problem has to be fixed".

    It takes some leadership and gumption to admit firstly that there is a problem, secondly that the problem is impacting across the organisation, and thirdly, telling someone that it is their responsibility to fix the problem. Of course, the executives have to have a vested interest in the course of events, and getting the problem fixed.

    Unfortunately, it seems that there is an expectation that a new Code of Practice will 'fix the problem'. This is only one aspect of what is required, and in some cases, the Code will work against all those involved as the actual hazard/risk factors will not be addressed.

    Fred Lee did make an important point in his book. He suggested that in a number of cases, there is finger pointing and blaming of management that they should have 'done something'. The point that I took from this discussion was that in a number of cases, it is you the worker who can do something. Unfortunately, some people seem to be conditioned (through organisational systems and processes or the workplace culture) into believing that we must refer the incident to someone 'up the line'.

    Perhaps what needs to change is our understanding about what it really means to have authority to act in relation to bullying behaviours. Lee interspersed his book with examples about working at Disney. For example, one day he walked past a piece of paper on the ground. Another employee chided him by saying "You work for Disney, we don't do that."

    How people in workplaces have the authority to tell another that certain behaviours are unacceptable or are not part of the workplace culture?

    How many would walk past or tolerate various behaviours simply because 'they don't want to get involved? In matters of bullying, we are all involved in the workplace, so have to make some choices about whether or not we really want to stamp out the behaviours, or do we want to tolerate them to the point of acceptance?

    The more we walk past behaviours, the more they become part of organisational and societal fabric as they are tolerated to the point of acceptance. Individually and collectively, we all need to stand up and be counted.

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