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1 Leadership and culture


As reported in the SOSR 2011–12, leadership is central to creating an APS capable of meeting the challenges of accelerated change and increased expectations of citizens. Building leadership capability has been the focus of renewed activity since the launch of Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration (2010) (the APS Reform Blueprint). This highlighted the need for a consistent approach to policy across departments and hence the need for leaders to collaborate across agency boundaries. This has led to reforms including the creation of the APS200[7] group and the Centre for Leadership and Learning within the APSC. Beyond this, APS leaders are also required to motivate and develop their people and to provide stewardship of the public interest. They are role models for their staff; leaders must also embody the APS Values and create a high performance, ethical culture for their agency and the APS as a whole.

The relationship between leaders and their employees is a critical component of employee engagement and has been incorporated into the APS Employee Engagement Model (see Figure 1.1). This defines employee engagement as the relationship individuals have with four elements of their work:

  • the job they do (job engagement)
  • the team with whom they work (team engagement)
  • their immediate supervisor (supervisor engagement)
  • the agency they work for, including their perceptions of its senior leaders (agency engagement).

The SOSR 2011–12 clearly demonstrated the links between higher employee engagement and a range of positive workplace outcomes including lower rates of sick leave and fewer staff intending to leave the agency.

Figure 1.1: APS Employee Engagement Model

Figure 1.2 shows engagement levels in the Micro-agencies compared with those in the wider APS. Job, team and agency engagement scores were all higher for Micro-agency employees. Supervisor engagement scores were comparable. This is a positive result for the Micro-agencies, and would be expected to lead to better workplace outcomes, such as lower levels of absenteeism. This, in turn, is likely to boost productivity.

Figure 1.2[8]: Employee engagement for Micro-agencies and the wider APS

* Indicates a statistically significant difference which is at least small in magnitude.

Figure 1.3 shows the link between engagement levels and career intentions for Micro-agency employees. Employees who wish to leave the agency as soon as possible or within the next 12 months show far lower engagement levels on all factors.

Figure 1.3[9]: Relationship between employee engagement and career intentions of Micro-agency employees


Perceptions of leadership

Immediate supervisor

An employee’s immediate supervisor is almost certainly the most influential leader he or she has. Employees observe their supervisor and form opinions of their strengths, weaknesses and overall effectiveness. Figure 1.4 shows employee satisfaction with their supervisor’s behaviour, while Figure 1.5 shows satisfaction with their capabilities, including those from the Leadership Capability Framework[10]. As with supervisor engagement levels, Micro-agencies were on a par with the wider APS.

The majority of employees (more than 60%) agreed that their supervisors generally acted with integrity and professionalism in the workplace (see Figure 1.4). However, all employees tended to be less positive about their supervisors’ management of underperforming staff.

Figure 1.4: Perceptions of immediate supervisor’s behaviour

As Figure 1.5 shows, 60% or more of employees held their supervisor’s capabilities in high regard. While Micro-agency employees were consistently more likely to be satisfied with their supervisors’ capabilities than employees from the wider APS, these differences were statistically minor.

Figure 1.5: Perceptions of immediate supervisor’s capabilities


Senior leadership

The employee census also asked employees to rate the behaviour and effectiveness of their senior leaders (Figure 1.6). Micro-agency employees were more likely than those from other agencies to have positive perceptions of the senior leaders’ behaviour. The SOSR 2011–12 has shown that this is strongly related to employee engagement levels. In particular, Micro-agency employees were more likely to agree their senior leaders were sufficiently visible in the workplace. This may reflect the nature of the Micro-agencies. For example, other agencies have larger and often geographically dispersed workforces. This limits access to, and visibility of, senior leaders.

Figure 1.6: Perceptions of senior leaders’ behaviour


*Indicates a statistically significant difference which is at least small in magnitude.

As Figure 1.7 shows, Micro-agency employees were consistently more likely to regard their senior leaders’ capabilities positively than those from other agencies. However, less than half of Micro-agency employees agreed that their senior leaders helped develop staff or personally acted to improve workplace diversity.

Figure 1.7: Perceptions of senior leaders’ capabilities


*Indicates a statistically significant difference which is at least small in magnitude.

The effect of senior leadership on employee engagement is shown in Figure 1.8. Micro-agency employees who thought that their agency was not well-managed by senior leaders showed considerably lower levels of engagement. This dissatisfaction and lack of engagement has implications for staff turnover and the disruption associated with it.

Figure 1.8[11]: Engagement levels segmented by responses to the question “My agency is well managed”


*Indicates a statistically significant difference which is at least small in magnitude.

Comments about leadership

As part of the census, employees were asked to describe one realistic change that would improve their agency. While these covered a range of issues, strong theme in them was focused on management issues. Recommendations for change about management from Micro-agency employees included a desire for leaders with vision and the ability to plan for the long-term, for example:

“Implementation of a strategic vision, strategic plan and a business plan including genuine engagement of staff”

“Provide visibility of the strategic workplan to all staff so that strategic direction can be understood by all”

“Get senior management to engage in organisational strategic objectives and leadership”.

While a number of employees also sought more autonomy to make decisions (coupled with less risk aversion), they were also clear that some leaders and managers needed to improve their skills, especially their 'people skills’:

“‘People’ management training for SES”

“All managers receive regular/ongoing management training outside the agency. The impact of poor management on productivity and morale is shocking”

Communication and consultation was also raised, for example:

“Increase communication and consultation between senior managers and staff. Senior managers make decisions without consultation and staff are left confused as to why”.

This last issue is also linked to lower levels of engagement. As Figure 1.9 shows, Micro-agency employees who think their senior leaders do not consult with staff on meeting future challenges have significantly lower engagement levels than other staff. The impact that change management can have on organisational effectiveness is addressed under Theme 3.

Figure 1.9[12]: Engagement levels segmented by responses to the question “In my agency, senior leaders engage with staff on how to respond to future challenges”


*Indicates a statistically significant difference which is at least small in magnitude.

Key findings

  • The majority of Micro-agency employees agree their supervisor acts with integrity and professionalism. Micro-agency employees also held their supervisor’s management capabilities in high regard.
  • Higher proportions of Micro-agency employees agreed their SES leaders act with integrity and professionalism than in the wider APS. Micro-agency employees also held their SES leaders’ capabilities in higher regard.
  • Higher proportions of Micro-agency employees believed their SES leaders were sufficiently visible in the workplace. This is related to higher levels of staff engagement.
  • Micro-agency employees were more likely than those from other agencies to agree their agency was well-managed. Positive perceptions of agency management related to higher employee engagement.

Culture, values and conduct

Ethical climate

The APS Values and Code of Conduct provide explicit guidance on behaviour which is necessary for an ethical, professional and fair APS. While the Values are currently under review as part of changes to the Public Service Act 1999, the essential qualities required of an APS employee have not changed. The employee census provides the first opportunity for leaders of Micro-agencies to assess the ethical health of their workplaces.

Figure 1.10 shows how frequently employees see their leaders and colleagues adhering to the APS Values. Micro-agency results were generally comparable to, if marginally higher than, those for the wider APS. In both cases, more than 80% of employees thought that those around them act in accordance to the APS Values.

Figure 1.10: Perceptions of colleagues’ compliance with the APS Values


The majority of Micro-agency employees were also satisfied with their senior leaders and their agency’s ethical performance (see Figure 1.11). In both cases, Micro-agency employees were more positive than those from the wider APS.

Figure 1.11: Perceptions of SES and agency ethical behaviour

*Indicates a statistically significant difference which is at least small in magnitude.

Bullying and harassment in the Micro-agencies

Employers have a duty to manage risks to health and safety in their workplaces under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. This obligation is also clearly articulated in the APS Values which require APS workplaces to be fair, flexible, safe and rewarding. Bullying and harassment[13] are among the most damaging behaviour in the modern workplace. It is costly to the individuals concerned, their immediate workgroup, and the organisation in which it occurs. It can have an immediate impact on the capacity of the organisation through employee absences and the disruption caused by inter-personal conflict.

Fifteen per cent of Micro-agency employees reported being harassed or bullied in the last 12 months. This is comparable to the wider APS result (17%). Table 1.1 shows:

  • the source of the bullying or harassment
  • the type of behaviour experienced
  • why the employee thought they had been subjected to it.

Nearly half of Micro-agency employees who had been bullied or harassed reported that the behaviour came from someone senior, but not their direct supervisor. In fact, only a third reported that their supervisor bullied or harassed them. When asked what type of behaviour they had experienced, over half reported verbal abuse.

Identifying the reason for bullying is more difficult. While, almost half of employees who had been bullied or harassed chose ‘personality differences’ as the reason the same proportion cite ‘Other’.

Table 1.1: Experiences of Micro-agency employees who report being bullied or harassed
    % of employees who have been bullied or harassed
Who was responsible for the harassment or bullying? Someone more senior (other than your supervisor) 45%
Co-worker 33%
Your supervisor 32%
Someone more junior than you 11%
Client, customer or stakeholder 4%
Other 2%
Consultant/service provider 1%
What type of harassment did you experience? Verbal abuse (e.g. offensive language, derogatory remarks, shouting or screaming) 53%
Inappropriate and unfair application of work policies or rules (e.g. performance management, access to leave, access to learning and development) 36%
Other 35%
Physical behaviour (e.g. assault or aggressive body language) 8%
Interference with your personal property or work equipment 3%
Initiations or pranks 2%
What was the harassment based on? Other 47%
Personality differences 47%
Work performance 27%
Employment status (e.g. non-ongoing or part-time status) 11%
Sex or gender 10%
Age 7%
Race/ethnicity 4%
Sexual orientation 2%
Political opinion 2%
Disability 1%
Religion 1%

As Figure 1.12 shows, Micro-agency employees who had been bullied or harassed had considerably lower employee engagement levels than those who had not. Bullying affects employees’ relationships with the people around them, as shown by lower team and supervisor engagement. However, it also affects how they relate to their work, or their degree of job engagement.

Figure 1.12: Effect of bullying and harassment on employee engagement

*Indicates a statistically significant difference which is at least small in magnitude.

The majority (61%) of employees who had been bullied or harassed chose not to report it. Most made this choice because they believed no action would be taken and a third thought the process was too difficult (see Table 1.2). Improving the reporting process for bullying and harassment so that it becomes a viable option for employees is likely to have benefits for all APS agencies. Research has demonstrated that action by an agency in response to a complaint may reduce the impact bullying and harassment have on employee engagement[14].

Table 1.2: Reasons for not reporting bullying or harassment
  Per cent of cases
I did not think any action would be taken 51%
I did not want to upset relationships in the workplace 38%
It could affect my career 36%
Managers accepted the behaviour 35%
I did not think it was worth the hassle of going through the reporting process 34%
I did not have enough evidence 18%
I did not think the harassment or bullying was serious enough 18%

Nearly half (47%) of those who reported the abuse were unsatisfied with the result. Of these:

  • 75% thought the agency failed to take effective action
  • 58% reported the individual continued to bully or harass employees
  • 50% thought their workplace relationships had been damaged by reporting the abuse.

In essence, while bullying and harassment rates are similar in the Micro-agencies to the APS as a whole, this is still behaviour that cannot be tolerated in a fair and ethical APS. The fact that most people do not report the problem is of particular concern.

Misconduct in the Micro-agencies

One in ten Micro-agency employees had witnessed another employee engage in what they saw as a serious breach of the APS Code of Conduct[15]. This result is comparable to that for the wider APS (12%). Nearly half (48%) chose not to report the breach. Of those who chose not to report it, 47% believed no action would be taken, while 31% believed it could affect their career. For those who did report the misconduct, only a third were satisfied with the outcome. Most of those who were dissatisfied (79%) reported that the agency took no effective action.

Key findings

  • Over 85% of Micro-agency employees believe staff in their agency uphold the APS Values.
  • One in six (15%) of Micro-agency employees experienced some form of bullying or harassment in the previous 12 months.
  • Sixty-one per cent of employees who have been bullied or harassed did not report the problem. The majority thought their complaint would not be acted on or that the process was too difficult.
  • Being bullied or harassed is linked to lower employee engagement levels.


[7] The APS200 was established as part of the APS Reform Blueprint. It comprises the Secretaries Board, selected agency heads and Senior Executive Service Band 3 or equivalent officers from agencies that employ staff under the Public Service Act 1999. APS200 members have a leading role in communicating the vision of the APS of the future and building the understanding, engagement and commitment of employees to the reform agenda. In addition to their role as leaders in their organisations, and more widely across the APS, APS200 members also support the Secretaries Board by undertaking strategic projects and initiatives as cross-portfolio teams.

[8] Job Engagement: t(85549)=5.89, p<0.001, d=0.2; Team Engagement: t(85409)=7.00, p<0.001, d=0.23; Supervisor Engagement: t(81273)=2.17, p=0.03, d=0.07; Agency Engagement: t(873.5)=8.77, p<0.001, d=0.32.

[9] Job Engagement: f(3, 852)=157.72, p<0.001, f=0.75; Team Engagement: f(3, 855)=86.1, p<0.001, f=0.55; Supervisor Engagement: f(3, 852)=67.77, p<0.001, f=0.49; Agency Engagement: f(3, 843)=105.19, p<0.001, f=0.61.

[11] Job Engagement: f(2, 875)= 126.02, p<0.001, f=0.54; Team Engagement: f(2, 878)= 160.38, p<0.001, f=0.61; Supervisor Engagement: f(2, 861)= 120.56, p<0.001, f=0.53; Agency Engagement: f(2, 858)= 484.2, p<0.001, f=1.06.

[12] Job Engagement: f(2, 877)= 106.23, p<0.001, f=0.49; Team Engagement: f(2, 880)= 127.34, p<0.001, f=0.54; Supervisor Engagement: f(2, 860)= 99.38, p<0.001, f=0.48; Agency Engagement: f(2, 858)= 411.93, p<0.001, f=0.98.

[13]The employee census describes workplace harassment as behaviour which is offensive, belittling or threatening behaviour directed at an individual or groups of APS employees. The behaviour is unwelcome, unsolicited, usually unreciprocated and usually (but not always) repeated. The census accepts there is no standard definition of workplace bullying, but describes it as repeated workplace behaviour which could reasonably be considered to be humiliating, intimidating, threatening or demeaning to an individual or group. Such behaviour may be either overt or covert.

[14] Cotton, A.J. ‘Organisational Responses Ameliorate the Impact of Workplace Bullying on Employee Engagement’, Paper presented to the 26th Annual Conference of the Australian/New Zealand Academy of Management Conference, Perth, 5 December 2012.

[15] The employee census cites as examples of a serious breach fraud, theft, misusing clients’ personal information, sexual harassment, leaking classified documentation, or other behaviour that would be likely to result in termination of employment for the employee.

Last reviewed: 
7 June 2018