Boys’ clubs: how blokey workplace cultures facilitate corruption

By David Donaldson

September 27, 2016

A high-integrity culture and well-designed structures are vital weapons in the fight against public sector corruption — at least, that’s the prevailing wisdom.

Less often noted are the roles gender and diversity play in fostering a workplace environment that can facilitate bad behaviour.

The boys’ club culture at the former Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development “absolutely” came out in public hearings at the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission earlier this year, says Kate Rattigan, ‎deputy secretary of people and executive services at the Department of Education and Training.

“Some of the people that did speak up were women … and those women say their careers suffered as a result of that.”

One female former project manager described a “culture of blokeiness and drinks” between those allegedly involved in “dodgy” dealings.

Many were afraid to voice their concerns openly, she told the IBAC hearing into the Ultranet debacle, adding that she was “shocked into silence”.

The deputy secretary said the blokey culture was a theme throughout IBAC hearings into so-called banker schools. “So not only was there a perception of a boys’ club and a boys’ culture in the department, but that came out in the evidence,” Rattigan stated at last week’s integrity forum, organised by the Victorian branch of the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

“That is something that we need to be aware of across the whole public sector. Not just around gender but also around diversity and inclusion in departments, in organisations.”

Rattigan described how others in useful positions were “groomed”, alluding to former departmental bigwig Nino Napoli — who managed to “corruptly obtain” at least $1.9 million, according to IBAC.

“For those of you who followed the hearing quite closely and followed the media, our finance director was a kind of gregarious type, best friends with many school principals and had a very particular kind of character where he would become overly friendly with some school principals and reward them,” she said.

“So he might give them little benefits, award them with business manager of the year, build up that trust and confidence in the relationship, then ask them to do a favour. So he would say … ‘would you mind just processing these invoices from this printing company, it’s just quicker if you do it’ etc.

“And they’d think ‘well I trust him … I’ll go ahead and do it’,”

Rotate staff more often, but not in existing sets

Not only can a blokey culture allow certain men to form personal, trusting relationships that go beyond the professional, it can lead to the exclusion of others. “I think what we’ve heard in IBAC as well was that some of the people that did speak up were women. And those women did say that they felt that their careers suffered as a result of that,” she explained.

Diversity forms one element of the overall high-integrity culture that can make it more difficult for staff to breach standards — whether in terms of big-C corruption or maladministration or misconduct. A positive culture that embraces diversity can also improve the organisation’s performance.

“We need to have diversity and inclusion across all attributes in our organisation to be the kind of place where we have good, engaged staff and we attract and retain excellent staff,” said Rattigan.

Nous Group consultant and former mandarin Claire Noone said departments should consider rotating people through different areas more than they currently do. Keeping similar groups of people in the same place for an extended period can increase risk.

“So you find that when a work group is in an area for a long time,” she explained. “They’re all people who are the same, and there aren’t any other ideas or other points of view being brought to bear on the behaviours, on the practices that are adopted within the particular work area.”

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