Toxic culture whistleblowers retrenched

by Human Capital19 Sep 2012

The case of two CSIRO employees who blew the whistle on alleged mismanagement and made claims about a bullying culture has thrown the spotlight on toxic workplace cultures.

As reported in The Age, two of three CSIRO employees who blew the whistle on alleged ''criminal or civil breaches of the law'' by the scientific organisation were later made redundant. The officials who were the subject of the complaints remain employed, the CSIRO confirmed via a spokesperson.

The details emerged after a group of former CSIRO employees began a campaign for a change in culture, alleging that mismanagement and bullying were rife.

Last week a parliamentary inquiry examining workplace bullying in Commonwealth agencies published the group's submission. It claims the group is aware of 60 cases of top-flight scientists and other officials who were bullied or otherwise forced out.

''Current whistleblower legislation does not adequately protect from persecution those making public interest declarations,'' the document says.

''This is particularly true in circumstances in which it is hard to identify a direct link between a whistleblower complaint and subsequent, seemingly unrelated, adverse action against the employee in his or her workplace.''

Stuart King, managing director of Risk to Business, told HC that his organisation’s research of 5,000 Australians and their experiences of bullying in the workplace painted a “sad indictment” of how employers are handling the problem. “This is what people told us about what their organisation did in response to bullying issues when they raised them: 5.8% made things worse, 23% turned a blind eye, 40.2% did nothing, 4.3% victimised the person who complained, 16.1% made things better.”

King added that corporate leaders can be classified as either ‘visionaries’ or ‘gamblers’ when it comes to building corporate cultures. Gamblers might be hired because they deliver on results, they increase profitability, increase market share, “and deliver on all those outcomes that organisations value”. However, he said there is often a “blind eye turned to how the person actually achieved that”.

These organisations, he added, are not interested in finding out what’s going on, or they hear about it and turn a blind eye, which in turn encourages toxic cultures to build.

A visionary leader, on the other hand, is open to asking questions to the employee group, including probing what it’s really like to work in the organisation. “It’s important to hold people accountable for the values in organisations,” King said. “I always say to senior execs, the higher you are, the greater your responsibilities are to articulating and living the values. Because people will see that and follow that; but the contrary is also true – if you don’t do that, people are almost rudderless.”

King advised companies to review their policies around workplace bullying, and recommended implementing independent help lines to triage workplace behaviour complaints, to refer people to EAPs, to support people to resolve conflict, and to provide assistance to managers when they are supporting people who are responding to conflict. “These all help to make the issues visible,” he said. “Treat it like a risk – once you identify the risk you can then treat it or mitigate it.”


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  • by Bernie Althofer 20/09/2012 1:35:39 PM

    Despite the existence of policies and procedures designed to prevent, detect and resolve workplace bullying, there are times when all those involved are not afforded the protections or support they believe they are entitled to.

    Whilst the tone of an organisation can and should be set at the top, sometimes the various sub-cultures and 'the way things are done around here' approach have more of an impact on what really happens in relation to how any form of 'wrong doing' or counter productive behaviours are reported. These factors may also have a strong influence on how those who report such transgressions are managed. The question might be "Who has a key role to play in identifying, reporting and supporting the key players?"

    As indicated above, making the issues visible is important. However, where there is an invasive and toxic culture that penalises those who speak up, then a loud and strong message is sent, and in many cases, it is not a positive message.

    In addition to the advice offered above, I would suggest that there has to be an implementation process as well as an audit/assessment process conducted. I would suggest that the audit/assessment process be conducted by an independent agent. Officers and workers may be more inclined to 'open up' if they believe they are speaking with someone who is independent, has no ties to the organisation, and there are no conflicts of interest (e.g. promotional opportunities threatened for advice provided).

    There is no magic solution to addressing what can be a complex issue. However, it does take hard work, commitment and leadership from the top and cascaded through the organisation, and most of all, an admission that workplace bullies might be creating substantial damage to individual and organisation reputations.

  • by Bernie Althofer 25/09/2012 3:44:21 PM

    There seems to be considerable expectations being placed on officers and workers to prevent, detect and resolve workplace bullying. It seems that education and prevention are being promoted as key strategies to reduce the level of risk exposure.

    How then can officers be satisfied that the risks are being detected? Should internal auditors (or even external auditors) play a role in 'detecting', 'identifying' and 'reporting' on the level of exposure.

    Over the years, audits have moved from purely financial through to IT and into the realm of HR and operational issues.

    However, I would suggest that due to the complexity of issues involved with workplace bullying, auditors should be exposed to systems or processes that offer currency of knowledge. Periodic audits of organisational systems and processes could be time consuming, depending a range of variables, and whether or not the auditor is afforded access to all relevant materials.

    Given the potential for skeletons to be lurking around the next corner (or hidden away) auditors can with the appropriate exposure, identify issues that have the potential to damage individual or organisational reputations.

    I would like to think that in this day and age, given the rise and rise of workplace bullying allegations (and the level of 'unreported' incidents, that auditors should have had some detailed briefings and already be 'on the case' so to speak. In reality, bullying is not going away in the immediate future, and officers should be utilising their auditors effectively to identify what can be damaging risk exposures.

  • by Tamara Parris 7/10/2012 11:36:03 AM

    You bring forward great points Bernie.

    Many company leaders I speak to seem to still believe their programs and policies are being implemented and followed.

    What we often find after open discussions with support staff is managers are ignoring the issues and still sweep things under the carpet. Even after they're trained on the companies new programs and policies.

    What is the purpose of asking the managers, accountable for administering the programs and policies, to fill out evaluation surveys to assess if their HSP is working properly?

    I have heard too often people tell me "we determine success by the fact there is no reporting of "major" problems".

    After investigating, we find these same managers are blocking employees from reporting incidents.

    Senior leaders are leaving out a critical step by not connecting with their direct workforce.

    It is unfortunate many people are not using the core skill of listening to their support employees insights to evaluate success.

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