Bullying culture rife, public servants say

by Stephanie Zillman14 Nov 2012

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


  • by Blythe Rowe 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.

  • by Bernie Althofer 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.

  • by Glen Parker 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.

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