APS bullying rates refuse to budge: more to do

By David Donaldson

December 13, 2016

Businessman showing stop sign

One in six federal public servants say they experience bullying or harassment at work, according to data released by the Australian Public Service Commission.

But there is limited faith in official processes, with only 40% of those who had experienced bullying deciding to report the behaviour.

“This result suggests there is scope for agencies to do more to ensure the reporting of harassment and bullying is seen as an acceptable response,” says the commission.

And although 40% may seem to be a low reporting rate, the APS figure is still double the number in Victoria, where only 19% of those who experienced bullying submit a formal complaint.

The number APS staff saying they had been subjected to bullying in the previous 12 months has remained unchanged at 16-17% over the past five years, according to the APSC’s State of the Service survey. This is similar to Victoria, where around one in five VPS employees saying they had experienced bullying in the past 12 months.

“Be proactive in communicating standards of expected behaviour — identify and model the behaviours you need in your team.”

The data reiterates that such negative experiences create problems for agencies, with flow-on effects for job satisfaction and retention. The APSC numbers show that people who have experienced bullying or harassment at work have consistently lower engagement across a range of measures, including with their job, supervisor, team and agency. People who have witnessed others being bullied also had lower engagement scores than those who had not.

Men and women experience workplace bullying differently. Men were most likely to say they were bullied by someone more senior other than their own supervisor (40%, compared to 31% for women), whereas the most common response for women was a coworker (38%, and 32% for men). Around a quarter pointed to a former supervisor, followed by their current supervisor (17% for women, 20% for men).

The most common type was verbal bullying, which made up about half of incidents, followed by interference with work tasks, such as withholding information, undermining or sabotage, and unfair application of work policies or rules, such as performance management, access to leave or access to learning and development.

Around 8% reported cyberbullying, 3% sexual harassment and 4% physical behaviour. Nearly one third of incidents fell into the ‘other’ category.

Preventing bullying

The most effective way of preventing bullying occurring “is by fostering a culture in which bullying behaviour is unlikely to thrive”, argues the APSC’s Working together: promoting mental health and wellbeing and work guide. Although individual behaviour is clearly a key variable, workplace culture can work to facilitate or minimise the chance for inappropriate conduct to occur.

The guide recommends managers:

  • Be proactive in communicating standards of expected behaviour — identify and model the behaviours you need in your team.
  • Create a workplace where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.
  • Design appropriate, realistic systems of work.
  • Develop productive, respectful working relationships.
  • Follow the organisation’s policy and processes if standards of expected behaviour are not met.

If bullying does occur, “it is important to recognise this behaviour and act on it early” and try to understand its causes, says the commission.

“Some people might be unaware that their behaviour might amount to bullying. It may be useful to have a conversation with the employee about their behaviour and its impact on colleagues. This will probably be a sensitive and difficult conversation and you might need to talk with your human resource team for advice on how to have the conversation. In some cases you might want a member of your human resource team to be there during the conversation.”

The guide also notes that “role conflict and uncertainty can sometimes lead to bullying behaviours due to the stress it places on employees.”

“It is important to ensure that employees understand their roles and have the appropriate skills to do their job. This will help to minimise work circumstances that could lead to bullying, and can also help to minimise the risk of employees’ perceiving difference of opinion or management action as bullying,” it suggests.

Feedback to staff should be regular and respectful to prevent appropriate performance management being mistaken for bullying.

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