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2012 Indigenous census: Theme 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 APS2005 group. Beyond this, APS leaders are also required to motivate and develop their people and to provide stewardship of the public interest. As leaders they are role models for their staff and must 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

The SOSR 2011–12 compared engagement levels between Indigenous and non-Indigenous employees and found no salient differences between the two. Dividing the Indigenous segment of the workforce into ACT and non-ACT groups does not change this (see Figure 1.2).

Figure 1.2: Engagement scores


As the APS Employee Engagement Model was developed after the 2009 Indigenous employees’ census, results cannot be compared between the two censuses. However, comparisons can be made on a number of generic job satisfaction items (see Figure 1.3). Job satisfaction was comparable between the surveys for ACT-based employees. However, the proportions of non-ACT employees who enjoyed their job or found it fulfilling had dropped. Despite this fall, the majority of employees remain satisfied.

Figure 1.3: Job satisfaction

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

Perceptions of leadership

Immediate supervisor

An employee’s immediate supervisor is almost certainly the most influential leader they have. 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 supervisor’s capabilities, including those from the Leadership Capability Framework6.

Indigenous employees were generally positive about their supervisor regardless of their location. As well as being comparable to one another, both Indigenous groups were comparable to the non-Indigenous workforce on most items. The exception to this is that non-ACT employees were more likely to be satisfied with their supervisor’s management of underperformance than non-Indigenous employees. ACT-based employees fell between the two, comparable to both.

Figure 1.4: Perceptions of immediate supervisor’s behaviour


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

Supervisors’ capabilities were well regarded by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous employees, with over 60% satisfied on each item. There were no salient differences on any measure between the three groups.

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). While Indigenous employees were consistently more satisfied with their SES, their results remain comparable with non-Indigenous employees. ACT and non-ACT employees were also comparable.

Figure 1.6: Perceptions of senior leaders’ behaviour

For the most part, the three groups generally held similar perceptions of their senior leaders’ capabilities (see Figure 1.7). There was one salient difference, however; higher proportions of Indigenous employees agreed that their SES were personally active in improving the diversity of the workforce. While higher than the non-Indigenous segment, both Indigenous groups were comparable to one another. However, their satisfaction rates still remained below 50%. These results should be interpreted with some caution. A number of these items require employees to have close contact with the SES before they can form an opinion. If employees do not have this level of contact, satisfaction ratings tend to drop as employees become more likely to select neutral responses. In this case, between 30% and 52% of respondents selected ‘Neither agree nor Disagree’ rather than ‘Disagree’.

Figure 1.7: Perceptions of senior leaders’ capabilities

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

Key findings

  • Supervisors and SES were generally well regarded by Indigenous employees.
  • Non-ACT Indigenous employees were more likely to be satisfied with their supervisor’s management of underperforming staff than non-Indigenous staff. ACT-based staff fell between the two.
  • Indigenous employees were more likely to report that their agency’s senior leaders were personally active in improving workforce diversity.
  • While satisfaction with SES capabilities was comparatively low for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous employees this is due to a higher proportions of employees giving neutral rather than negative ratings.

Culture, values and conduct

Ethical climate

The APS Values and Code of Conduct provide explicit guidance on behaviours which are necessary for an ethical, professional and fair APS. As Figure 1.8 shows, the majority of employees were satisfied with the behaviour of those around them. All three groups were comparable.

Figure 1.8: Perceptions of colleagues’ compliance with the APS Values

Approximately half of Indigenous employees were satisfied with their SES and agency’s ethical performance (see Figure 1.9). These results are comparable with the non-Indigenous segment of the workforce.

Figure 1.9: Perceptions of SES and agency ethical behaviour

Bullying and harassment of Indigenous employees

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

Bullying rates were comparable between ACT and non-ACT Indigenous employees. However, 22% of Indigenous employees reported being bullied or harassed in the past 12 months, compared with 17% of non-Indigenous employees. This difference is consistent with data from the previous three State of the Service reports7 and means that Indigenous employees are approximately 25% more likely to report experiencing bullying or harassment. The consistency with which this finding has appeared over the last three years means it should be seen as a cause for concern.

Table 1.1 details the types and reasons of bullying or harassment experienced by Indigenous employees.
The ACT and non-ACT groups have been combined to protect the anonymity of respondents8. The most frequently cited source of bullying or harassment was the victim’s supervisor, marginally ahead of a co-worker or another senior employee. Verbal abuse was the most frequently experienced behaviour. However, only 18% reported that the bullying or harassment was about race or ethnicity. This is far below other causes such as personality differences or work performance. These results do not dismiss racially motivated bullying or harassment in the APS, but it demonstrates that bullying and harassment are complex problems which may influenced by a range of issues. That the second most frequently given reason for being bullied or harassed was ‘other’ also illustrates this complexity. No further information is available regarding what these reasons may be.

Table 1.1: Experiences of Indigenous employees who reported being bullied or harassed
    % of employees who have been bullied or harassed 
Who was responsible for the harassment or bullying? Your supervisor 39%
Someone more senior (other than your supervisor) 36%
Co-worker 34%
Someone more junior than you 9%
Client, customer or stakeholder 6%
Other (including consultant, minister/ministerial adviser and representative of another APS agency) 6%
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)
Other 31%
Physical behaviour (e.g. assault or aggressive body language) 8%
Interference with your personal property or work equipment 6%
Initiations or pranks 4%
What was the
harassment based on?
Personality differences 49%
Other 43%
Work performance 31%
Race/ethnicity 18%
Employment status (e.g. non-ongoing or part-time status) 11%
Age 9%
Sex or gender 6%
Disability 4%
Sexual orientation 3%
Religious or political reasons 3%

Only 48% of Indigenous employees who had been bullied or harassed chose to report it. Half (50%) of those who did not report believed no action would be taken. Forty one per cent were concerned about upsetting relationships in the workplace. One 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 benefit all employees. APSC research has demonstrated that action by an agency in response to a complaint may reduce the impact bullying and harassment have on employee engagement9.

Table 1.2: Reasons for not reporting bullying or harassment
  Per cent
I did not think any action would be taken 50%
I did not want to upset relationships in the workplace 41%
It could affect my career 38%
I did not think it was worth the hassle of going through the report process 34%
Managers accepted the behaviour 29%
I did not have enough evidence 20%
Other 19%
I did not think the harassment or bullying was serious enough 14%
The matter was resolved informally 6%
I did not know how to report it 6%

For those who did report the problem, half (50%) were dissatisfied with the outcome. Of these, the majority believed the agency failed to take effective action (see Table 1.3). Over a quarter (28%) felt that reporting the problem had a negative impact on their career.

Table 1.3: Perceived outcomes of reporting bullying or harassment
  Per cent
My agency did not take any effective action 61%
The employee continued to harass or bully me or others 43%
The managers accepted the behaviour 43%
My working relationships have been negatively affected 43%
My career has been negatively affected 28%
My agency was slow to take action 20%
The employee was transferred or promoted within my agency 13%
I was not informed of the outcome 11%
Other 9%


Overall, nearly one in five Indigenous employees had witnessed another employee engage in what they saw as a serious breach of the APS Code of Conduct. There were no significant differences between the ACT and non-ACT Indigenous segments, with 21% and 18% of respondents witnessing a breach respectively. This is somewhat higher than non-Indigenous employees (12%). The data does not show whether more incidents took place or whether a single breach was witnessed by more employees. Over half (58%) chose to report the breach. Of those who chose not to report, 46% believed no action would be taken, while 36% believed it could affect their career. For those who did report the misconduct, nearly half (49%) were dissatisfied with the outcome. Most of those who were dissatisfied (70%) reported that the agency took no effective action.

Diversity climate

A key aspect of the Strategy is to assist agencies to create and maintain a supportive and culturally respectful workplace which will assist in the recruitment and retention of Indigenous employees10. Overall, the majority of ACT and non-ACT employees agreed that their agency was committed to creating a diverse workforce (both on 70%). The non-Indigenous segment was also largely positive (67%). All three segments were comparable with one another. Combined with the support supervisors provide for workplace diversity, this paints a picture of the APS as a welcoming and inclusive employer.

Agencies also create an inclusive climate for Indigenous employees by offering cultural awareness training. As Table 1.4 shows, two thirds of agencies either offered such training or had it in development. Twenty four agencies offered it as a part day face to face training course, while 22 offered it over one or more days. Fifteen agencies provided e-learning options. Ten agencies reported offering training in more than one form.

Table 1.4: Numbers of agencies offering cultural awareness training
  Number of Agencies
Yes, for all employees new to the agency 7
Yes, for all employees new to the APS 3
Yes, for all employees 29
Yes, other 24
Being developed 13
No 34

In 2011–12, agencies also offered a range of other activities to promote Indigenous culture. Thirty two agencies took part in or promoted NAIDOC, Reconciliation Week or similar events. Other activities included:

  • presentations from people outside the agency (11 agencies);
  • formal training to staff (6 agencies);
  • Jawun secondments (5 agencies);
  • artwork and movies (4 agencies); and
  • “Welcome to Country” ceremonies at key events (4 agencies).

Key findings

  • The majority of employees believe their colleagues and agencies behave in accordance with the APS Values.
  • Indigenous employees are approximately 25% more likely to report being bullied or harassed than non-Indigenous employees.
  • Over 60% of Indigenous employees believe their agency is committed to creating a diverse workforce.
  • Two-thirds of APS agencies either currently offer cultural awareness training or have a program in development.

5 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.

7 While the difference is only statistically significant for the last three years, this may be due to the small numbers of Indigenous employees surveyed.

8 Standard State of the Service reporting guidelines prevent the reporting of breakdowns which result in cell-sizes smaller than 10 individuals. Due to the comparatively small number of Indigenous employees in the ACT, when this group is segmented further there is a risk that individuals will become identifiable.

9 A Cotton, Organisational responses ameliorate the impact of workplace bullying on employee engagement. Paper presented to 6th Annual conference of the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management Conference, Perth, (2012).

Last reviewed: 
7 June 2018