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Allegations of harassment and bullying

Harassment and bullying remained a focus of debate in 2012–13, including in particular through social media and blogs. As indicated earlier, the opportunities for APS employees to achieve administrative redress have been expanded through amendments to workplace health and safety legislation and the Fair Work Act 2009.

New questions were asked in the 2013 employee census to improve understanding of the factors driving employee concerns about workplace harassment and bullying. Employee census data indicates that 16% of employees experienced what they perceived to be harassment or bullying in the workplace during the last 12 months, similar to the 17% reported in 2012. This proportion was higher for employees with disability (29% compared with 15% for employees without disability). This finding is discussed in Chapter 5. In response to a new question in the employee census in 2013, 21% of employees reported witnessing another employee being subjected to what they perceived as bullying or harassment in the previous 12 months.

Of those employees who felt they had been harassed or bullied, 43% reported it, the same percentage as in 2012. The reporting rate was lower for employees who reported witnessing what they perceived as the harassment or bullying of others (35%). Reasons for not reporting harassment or bullying are shown in Table 3.8.

Table 3.8 Reasons for not reporting harassment or bullying, 2012 and 2013
Reasons for not reporting Employees who did not report for this reason (%)
Harassment or bullying experienced Harassment or bullying witnessed
2012 2013 2013
Source: Employee census

Note: An individual employee may be counted against more than one reason.
I did not think any action would be taken 50 53 33
It could affect my career 40 42 21
I did not want to upset relationships in the workplace 39 41 23
Not worth the hassle of going through the reporting process 34 35 11
Managers accepted the behaviour 32 34 30
I did not think the behaviour was serious enough 20 21 9
I did not have enough evidence 20 19 20
The matter was resolved informally 10 12 18
I did not know how to report it 5 4 4

The majority of employees who believed they were harassed or bullied in the last year said they experienced verbal abuse (61%) and/or inappropriate or unfair application of work policies or rules (41%) from someone more senior who was not a supervisor (40%), a supervisor (35%) or a co-worker (35%). These results were consistent with previous years.

Employees described the alleged harassment or bullying as based on work performance (42%), gender (10%), work status (9%) or age (9%). However, half of all employees who indicated they had experienced bullying or harassment at work chose the ‘other’ category when asked the basis for the unacceptable behaviour. In 2012, employees reported ‘personality differences’ as the most common basis for harassment or bullying. This category was not available this year. Instead, qualitative research was conducted to clarify the nature of the behaviour perceived as other harassment or bullying. Ninety-four per cent of those who chose ‘other’ (6,944 respondents) provided a free text explanation. Analysis of this information revealed two distinct factors:

  • personal differences, such as differences of opinion
  • abuse of power, including disrespect for knowledge and skills, threatening and abusive language, competition in the workplace, harassment when on graduated return to work programs or sick leave and differences in status.

Employee census data suggests allegations of harassment and bullying arise often in the context of employee concerns about actions taken by managers to manage employee performance or health. While the behaviour employees describe as harassment or bullying may be objectively viewed as reasonable management action, perceived harassment or bullying can have a significant impact on employee engagement and wellbeing and is of concern (Chapter 4).

The enquiries to the EAS and applications for review by the Merit Protection Commissioner highlight that managing allegations of harassment or bullying is challenging. The allegations arise from the interaction between individual behaviour, potential power imbalances and individual resilience. Perceptions of behaviour are important, but they must have a reasonable basis.

Taking a highly formal approach to allegations of bullying and harassment may entrench positions and make long-lasting resolution hard to achieve. Not every failure to act consistently with the APS Values needs to be dealt with by implementing misconduct procedures. In many cases these issues can be dealt with through other means if managers and the affected employees have the capability and confidence to do so. One way of achieving this is to consider an employee's concerns through the statutory review of actions scheme.