Four insights to improve culture in government workplaces

There are common mistakes government professionals make when handling conflict, complaints and poor culture, but there are clear ways to avoid them, writes Rose Bryant-Smith.

Across Australia, high-profile cases continue to hit the press and damage the reputations of government professionals and elected representatives. From affairs with staffers, bribery and corruption allegations in local government, to improper handling of incidents, there seems to be no end to the misconduct allegations that can arise in government workplaces in 2018.

The added scrutiny of media, constituents and watchdogs (anti-corruption and otherwise) means that the handling of complaints and conflict must be scrupulous in government departments and agencies.

Where do they tend to trip up, and how can we avoid the same problems?

1. Ignoring the signs of misconduct and conflict

Rose Bryant-Smith

As an employer, you don’t always have visibility over the extent of workplace problems. Bad behaviour and dysfunction can be hidden within teams, geographic areas, functional groups or chains of command. There are often signs and symptoms of dysfunction though, if you know what to look for, such as increased turnover, sick leave, absenteeism, poor performance and critical exit interviews.

Many human resources and compliance staff have a backlog of cases to handle, and focus on actual complaints and legal action. Mid-level managers have better oversight of the team culture on the ground, and have a sense of the individual risks. They need to be aware of the signs of dysfunction, to address problems early and to prevent them becoming entrenched in the culture.

Even if your EBA or policies require formal action to be taken on complaints of certain types, this doesn’t mean you have to wait for a complaint to trigger efforts to manage conflict and bad behaviour.

Solution: If you have a suspicion that something is not quite right, you don’t have to wait to receive a formal complaint. Trust your instincts, and address the problem before it festers.

2. Assuming the annual, government-wide employee survey is a sufficient measure of employment engagement, culture, risks and trust in managers and leaders.

In some states and territories, an annual survey is run of government staff engagement and perceptions. These allow tracking of trends over time, and occasionally focus on a current issue such as bullying and harassment.

In our clients’ experience, there is rarely a clear match between the areas of focus in the survey and the strategic priorities that the agencies and units have for their workforces and team culture.

Solution: There is no reason why you can’t create your own ‘pulse survey’ for your unit or division, as an easy, low-cost way to:

  • identify areas where you want to make changes – for example, improving your internal communications
  • know what is concerning your staff – such as a lack of training, or making decisions which impact differently on employees of different demographics
  • send a message to all staff that you are listening and care what they think. has standard employee engagement surveys which you can use, and you can also target the organisation’s achievements in a certain area – such as integration after a merger, or whether your recent investment in managers’ skills is having a noticeable impact.

3. Allowing poor conduct at the top (sometimes by elected representatives or people who are politically protected), which drags down the ethical culture of the organisation

We have heard this attempt at a bullying defence too many times:

“It wasn’t bullying – I am entitled to have robust conversations and to represent my constituents without fear or favour.”

In local and state government, senior executives in particular can get caught between elected officials whose style includes bluster, challenge and criticism, and paid staffers who have the right to work in safe workplace without risks to their psychological health.

Solution: Remember that occupational health and safety, equal opportunity and sexual harassment laws apply to everyone in the organisation – even the most senior executives and elected representatives. It’s the organisation’s responsibility to provide a safe and equitable workplace for all staff, volunteers and elected representatives.

4. Failing to apply procedural fairness in misconduct investigations

When allegations of serious misconduct are made in a government agency or department, the investigator must navigate the complex and difficult issues which can arise, including: the employees’ capacity to participate, health issues and sick leave, timeliness and delays, input from legal and union representatives, security of evidence, privacy and other issues.

We have seen many disciplinary decisions get derailed, and ultimately reversed, because the investigation was not procedurally fair.

What is procedurally fair to the participant employees in workplace investigations is an evolving area. The Fair Work Commission and reviewers of administrative decisions in the public sector continue to develop their own understanding of what is ‘fair’ in disciplinary processes.

Solution: Whether the misconduct investigation is undertaken in-house or using an external investigator, ensure that you understand the requirements of procedural fairness (including what is explicitly required in your EBA and policies).

Steps must be taken to ensure all workplace investigations are carried out sensitively, confidentially and fairly in order to protect the mental wellbeing of all participants.

Rose Bryant-Smith is a director of Worklogic, which works with all levels of government to resolve conflict and investigate complaints. She is co-author of Fix Your Team and Workplace Investigations.

Comment below to have your say on this story.

If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at  

Sign up to the Government News newsletter.

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required