AFP to change ‘command and control’ culture after gender review

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday August 23, 2016

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – SEPTEMBER 30: A general view of the Australian Federal Police emblem during a press conference about the terrorism raids that took place in Melbourne this morning at Victoria Police Centre on September 30, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia. The counter terror raids were carried out in seven locations across Melbourne. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

The gender diversity and inclusion report released yesterday by the Australian Federal Police provides more insight into the kind of insular, hypermasculine culture that generally prevails in regimented organisations that perform dangerous work.

Central to this type of culture is a specific understanding of trust and loyalty with deep historical roots. Police officers, soldiers, prison guards and others in similar roles need to know they can rely on each other to stand firm and show courage when things get hairy — but it cuts both ways.

Sexism is a common feature of this mentality, and so is bullying and a tendency to close ranks and ostracise people. Both are common social phenomena found elsewhere, too.

Based on six months of surveys and interviews with over 1000 AFP staff, former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick’s report highlights that women are regularly subject to discrimination, vulgar sexist jibes, harassment and even sexual assault in the AFP as a result of this type of culture.

Men also reported bullying and sexual harassment in large numbers, and Broderick’s report explores the differences between male and female experiences of AFP culture and the negative impact it can have.

Broderick writes “there are many areas where the organisation is already strong but like most policing and command and control environments, there are parts of the culture that require strengthening” and she is “not surprised” by what she found.

Her report includes plenty of heartening sentiments among the many anonymous statements from respondents describing the Federal Police as an excellent place to work, where women and men are all treated fairly.

But most of those came from men. Some women gave very positive responses but the majority of female respondents said it was harder to get ahead as a woman in the AFP. The report also notes that male respondents who shared this view “more likely than not, were married to female AFP members”.

Overall, 29% said they had been subjected to sexual harassment at work at least once in the last five years and 64% reported bullying over the same period.

Broderick praised commissioner Andrew Colvin’s “enormous courage” in commissioning her consultancy to do the research and the courage of the participants who told their stories. She also records her impression that AFP staff are there because they believe in the agency’s purpose and are committed to making it a better place to work:

“I have seen first-hand the strong commitment members have to developing the most capable and operationally effective AFP now and into the future.
 I have learnt of the breadth and depth of the work that members across the organisation undertake – often at great risk – for the protection of our nation.

I also sense a growing recognition by many, that the ongoing success of the AFP in part depends upon the organisation’s ability to become more diverse, whilst continuing to build a culture that is inclusive and respectful.”

For his part, Colvin said he was “disturbed” by how much bullying and sexual harassment the surveys revealed and that he “unreservedly” apologised to victims. Perhaps worst of all, but not entirely surprising in an organisation of over 6000 staff:

“Two percent of those that experienced sexual harassment reported experiencing actual rape or attempted rape or sexual assault in the last 5 years.”

Nonetheless, Broderick says the report should be seen as a positive, reflecting the leadership’s willingness to back workforce diversity and confront the issues that hold it back.

Assistant commissioner Ray Johnson has been appointed to head up a new division that will lead a cultural reform process. Colvin, who immediately accepted all of Broderick’s 24 recommendations, said “no part of the AFP will be off limits to him and his team”.

Broderick says the AFP top brass “have not shied away from some of the disturbing findings” and encouraged her to “be bold” in coming up with solutions. She warns them against trying to jump in and fix everything immediately, as is the tendency in “command and control” environments. Her advice is to take the time to let the stories she has collected from employees sink in:

“The greatest risk to this cultural reform agenda is leading without listening, reflecting and fully understanding.”

The AFP has acknowledged this advice but says it is taking some immediate steps — mainly the establishment of the independent team led by Johnson called “AFP Safe Place and Investigations”, which will take a “victim-focussed approach” to sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace.

The Broderick Plan: how the Federal Police will change its culture

The 24 recommendations the AFP have accepted are set out within six principles:

  1. Successful and sustainable reform depends on strong and courageous leadership.
  2. Talent promotion requires challenging the biases and assumptions underpinning the traditional view
    of merit and ensuring effective performance management.
  3. Increasing the number of women requires increasing opportunities.
  4. Flexible work practices are a key capability driver.
  5. Sexual harassment, sexual abuse and bullying damages individuals, divides teams and undermines
  6. Adequate resourcing and regular monitoring and evaluation is essential to measuring and sustaining

They include a new gender-balanced Cultural Reform Board chaired by Colvin with up to 15 representatives from various areas of the organisation, the use of the Human Rights Commission’s Leadership Shadow model or an equivalent for all senior executives, and an independent executive coach for all members of the Senior Leadership Group.

The leaders will explain the case for change in a written statement and on video, and take up the same “storytelling” approach that was used by the Defence Force’s own 2012 inquiry into the treatment of women and the taskforce charged with improving the situation. Broderick’s report explains:

“A key objective of the storytelling would be for the imperative of the case for change to be understood at senior leadership level.”

Changes to recruitment and promotion processes will follow, aimed at challenging bias against women, promoting a more modern view of the merit principle, where a wider range of skills and experiences are valued. Performance management will also be overhauled, with leaders made accountable for the “culture, health and wellbeing of their teams

” but also assisted by a new support team.

Colvin has agreed to implement a series of measures to attract and retain more women, and improve the gender balance in particular teams. Flexible work arrangements will become the default, with various administrative hooks suggested by Broderick to make it happen, and refusals to grant requests will be reviewed by senior leaders. The AFP will also try to keep in touch more with its people on extended leave, like new parents, offering them off-duty training to create better pathways back to work.

Either Colvin or Johnson — or whoever does their jobs in future — will review the employment of all staff with any “established sexual harassment findings against them” going forward. There will be another new “specialised, independent unit” to support victims of domestic violence in the workforce, recognising the perpetrator could also work for the AFP.

Much stricter bullying protocols will include automatic review by a senior executive of any complaint older than six months and quarterly reports to the commissioner on the overall bullying situation. And again, termination will be considered for those with established bullying findings, especially more than one.

The AFP’s existing Confidant Network will be strengthened with a mandatory level of seniority for its manager, awareness-raising and a targeted selection process for members, as well as “improved and ongoing” training for confidants.

Along with a whole lot of new training rolling out across all levels and areas of the AFP and new KPIs and requirements for leaders at various levels, Broderick’s recommendations come with an extensive new monitoring framework to keep it all on track. She has provided a list of metrics to keep track of women’s participation in the workforce and their general experience, the take-up of flexible work arrangements and of course, sexual harassment and bullying.

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