Go to top of page

Building a positive work environment

Note that this page is under review. It has not yet been updated to reflect changes to the Public Service Act 1999 and Public Service Regulations 1999, or contained in the Australian Public Service Commissioner's Directions 2013, that came into effect on 1 July 2013. Agencies may continue to use the guidance for reference, but should be aware that it may not reflect current legislative requirements.

The culture of an APS agency can lift its performance or inhibit it. People's values, attitudes and behaviours are strong influences on achieving business outcomes.

Effective leaders model their organisation's values and set the tone for the 'how things are done around here'. They promote the kind of culture that inspires people to do their best.

Fostering a positive workplace environment makes good business sense. A positive workplace is characterised by respect that supports employee engagement. It also creates a high performance culture that encourages innovation and creativity.

Organisations seen as positive places to work will always have a competitive edge because they attract and retain highly skilled staff. This is an important consideration in today's tight labour market.

A positive workplace environment is likely to result in less absenteeism and employee turnover, fewer cases of fraud, better safety practices, and improved staff wellbeing.

Positive work environments can also lead to reduced workers' compensation costs and premiums. People who are harassed or bullied may suffer a range of adverse affects, from distress and anxiety to serious psychological problems. Compensation for psychological injury accounted for 7% of total Australian Government workers' compensation claims, though nearly 27% of all claim costs in 2003–04.1 (For more information go to www.comcare.gov.au.)

Employers and employees have shared obligations for creating respectful and courteous workplaces. Employers want a productive workforce that manages its performance and achieves results. Employees want to work in a place where:

  • they know what is expected of them
  • the workplace is safe and they are treated fairly
  • their skills and contribution are recognised and valued
  • training and development support career progression
  • they can work harmoniously with others.

Working harmoniously with dignity

The Australian Industrial Relations Commission has made clear in a case of alleged harassment before it, that the community expects a standard of behaviour that allows us to go to work each day and do our jobs without having our personal dignity diminished
(Curr v. Australian Taxation Office 2004).2

Relevant legislation

Agencies must have systems that help to prevent and address workplace harassment and bullying. This includes recognising it when it happens, and then doing something to stop it. All employees should know that inappropriate workplace behaviour is a breach of the APS Values and Code of Conduct and is not tolerated in the APS.

Under various federal, state and territory legislation, every agency must take all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination and harassment and bullying in the workplace.3 Failing to take reasonable steps can have serious consequences for all levels of the organisation, including for individuals, teams and work groups, agencies as a whole, and for the perpetrators.

To comply with its legal obligations and to avoid liability arising, the Australian Government needs to show that it has effective systems to prevent harassment or discrimination. Several federal Acts include requirements to promote positive workplace cultures.

Public Service Act 19994

  • 'the APS provides a workplace that is free from discrimination and recognises and utilises the diversity of the Australian community it serves' (s. 10(1)(c))
  • 'the APS provides a fair, flexible, safe and rewarding workplace' (s. 10(1)(j))
  • 'agency heads have a specific obligation under the Act to uphold and promote the APS Values' (s. 12)
  • 'Senior Executive Service employees have a specific obligation under the Act to promote the APS Values and uphold the Code of Conduct' (s. 35(2))
  • 'an APS employee, when acting in the course of APS employment must treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and without harassment' (s. 13(3))
  • 'an APS employee must at all times behave in a way that upholds the APS Values and the integrity and good reputation of the APS' (s. 13(11)).

Work Health and Safety Act 20115

19(1) A person conducting a business or undertaking must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of:

  1. workers engaged, or caused to be engaged by the person; and
  2. workers whose activities in carrying out work are influenced or directed by the person; while the workers are at work in the business or undertaking.

Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 19886

  • imposes responsibilities on agency heads in relation to employees who are suffering from injuries 'arising out of or in the course of employment' (s. 6).

The Australian Human Rights Commission provides useful guidance on how employers can meet their legal obligations under anti-discrimination legislation to prevent harassment and bullying. (Go to www.humanrights.gov.au/australian-human-rights-commission-information-employers)

Comcare provides useful guidance to employers on how to prevent and manage workplace bullying in order to meet legal obligations under occupational and health legislation. (Go to www.comcare.gov.au)

Survey results on harassment and bullying in the APS

Surveys show that, in general, employees think of the APS and its agencies as good places to work.

APS employees are familiar with the APS Values and Code of Conduct. Surveys conducted from 2004-05 to 2006-07 show that around 90% of employees are familiar with the Values and Code.7

Surveys conducted for the State of the Service Report 2007-08 found, for example, that most employees:

  • have positive levels of job satisfaction
  • agree that their managers acted consistently with the APS Values and Code
  • are satisfied with workplace support for a good work/life balance.

However, the State of the Service Report 2007-08 also shows that 19% of employees believed they had experienced harassment or bullying in the past twelve months. The survey also showed that the harassing and bullying behaviour was reported as coming from customers, as well as co-workers, managers or supervisors.

Descriptions of 'respect' and 'harassment'

Federal legislation includes a number of concepts—respect, courtesy, harassment and diversity—that all relate to the nature of working relationships and workplace culture.

The PS Act and its associated instruments do not define these terms. However, the terms have commonly accepted meanings. Interpretations in judgements and relevant case law continue to reflect specific circumstances.

Respect and courtesy

respect 'esteem or deferential regard felt or shown' courtesy 'excellence of manners or behaviour; politeness'
Source: The Macquarie Dictionary

Some state jurisdictions describe respect and courtesy as:

  • 'treating others fairly and objectively and ensuring freedom from discrimination, harassment and bullying' (Victoria)8
  • 'being honest and treating people courteously, so that they maintain their dignity and their rights are upheld' (Western Australia)9
  • 'treat[ing] members of the public and their colleagues fairly and consistently, in a non-discriminatory manner with proper regard for rights and obligations' (New South Wales)10
  • 'showing respect for our clients and colleagues, by dealing with them fairly and courteously and by respecting their rights as citizens and members of our community' (Queensland).11

Maintaining courteous workplace behaviour is not meant to impose rigid rules on workplace styles, or on workplace relationships and social activities. Rather, courteous behaviour recognises that people with different backgrounds, interests and friends need to get along with each other in the workplace.

Tips for encouraging a culture of respect and courteous workplace behaviour

Ensuring open communication

  • make sure communication within the team is open, clear and friendly
  • maintain an 'open' door
  • monitor potential bullying, harassment or low morale
  • provide constructive performance guidance, including positive feedback.

Strategies to promote respect and courtesy

  • develop a set of agreed team behaviours that embed the APS Values and Code of Conduct
  • incorporate the APS Values into performance planning and feedback cycles for all staff
  • agree on a process for team members to provide feedback
  • include a team building session at planning days or team meetings
  • ensure support for a culturally inclusive workplace
  • check that all staff have read, understood and apply the agency's policy on harassment and bullying
  • discuss staff survey results with teams and identify any areas for improvement
  • provide managers at all levels with 360-degree feedback.

Managing workloads and priorities

  • prioritise tasks, and set clear and realistic deadlines
  • manage the allocation of urgent work and help staff to re-prioritise workloads where necessary
  • ensure staff have all the information they need to do their work
  • confirm that all employees understand their role and have the skills, capabilities and training they need to perform to their full potential
  • design jobs to ensure workloads are fairly distributed
  • consider job rotation to give employees opportunities to broaden their experience and skills
  • encourage employees to find a good work–life balance.

Examples of failing to show respect and courtesy include:

  • promoting or expressing political, religious or social views at the workplace that offend other staff
  • questioning a supervisor in a raised voice, accusing them of bias, or claiming they are unprincipled
  • yelling and/or speaking all the time and not allowing others to be heard
  • ignoring and working around some one who should be involved in the process
  • displaying a contemptuous attitude towards staff, particularly junior staff
  • attempting humour by diminishing the dignity of a co-worker
  • making belittling or derogatory remarks that diminish the dignity of other staff
  • leaning toward or standing over a person so that they feel uncomfortable or threatened.

When confrontation is not courteous

In a series of meetings, a staff member engaged in behaviours which were discourteous and disrespectful towards others. He was rude and used inappropriate tone, and spoke in a sarcastic and belittling way. He adopted an adversarial style, interrupted other participants and made repeated demands for information he had been told was not available. He did not allow a participant to give her side of the story and instead accused her of lying and berated her aggressively. He also leaned towards and used body language that caused a participant to feel uncomfortable and threatened. Discourteous behaviour like this is unacceptable in the APS.

The employee ultimately had his employment terminated for breaching section 13(3) of the Code of Conduct—see Curr v. Australian Taxation Office (2004).

Workplace diversity

Workplace diversity is about recognising the value of individual differences and managing these in the workplace.

The concept of workplace diversity includes the principle of equal employment opportunity and policies aimed at addressing disadvantage based on sex, Indigenous status, disability, and race or ethnicity.

Diversity also relates to other differences (for example, working styles, socio-economic background, educational level, family responsibilities).

Examples of valuing workplace diversity include:

  • developing employees' work skills and abilities, to help them reach their full potential
  • recognising and valuing diverse skills, cultural values and backgrounds of people in the workplace
  • encouraging employees to celebrate diversity
  • implementing workplace structures, systems and procedures to balance work and personal responsibilities.

Federal legislation includes a range of responsibilities that agencies must undertake to promote diversity and take steps to address employment disadvantage.

Provisions of the Commonwealth Disability Strategy, and equal employment opportunity and other legal requirements, relate to workplace diversity and anti-discrimination. Section 18 of the PS Act requires an agency head to establish a workplace diversity plan to give effect to the APS Values. For more information see Guidelines on Workplace Diversity—Working Together No. 2.12

Workplace harassment and bullying

Workplace harassment and bullying is unacceptable and is not tolerated in the APS.

Workplace harassment includes offensive, belittling or threatening behaviour towards an individual or group of employees. The behaviour is unwelcome, unsolicited, usually unreciprocated, and often repeated.

Even if the behaviour is not meant deliberately, it can still be harassment where a reasonable person would conclude that it would humiliate, offend, intimidate or cause a person unnecessary hurt or distress. It can also be unlawful under anti-discrimination legislation (such as sexual harassment or racial vilification).

Bullying is a form of harassment and does not show respect and courtesy.

While there is no standard definition of workplace bullying, this term is generally used to describe repeated workplace behaviour that could reasonably be considered to be humiliating, intimidating, threatening or demeaning to an individual or group of individuals. It can be overt or covert, inflicted by one person or groups. Abusive group behaviour or 'ganging up' against one or more individuals is a form of bullying that is sometimes called workplace 'mobbing'.

Workplace harassment and bullying can be:

  • intended: where actions were intended to humiliate, offend, intimidate or distress, whether or not the behaviour did in fact have that effect or
  • unintended: which although not intended to humiliate, offend, intimidate or distress, did cause and should reasonably have been expected to cause that effect.

Examples of workplace harassment or bullying include:

  • physical behaviour—assault, intimidating or aggressive body language
  • verbal abuse—offensive language or derogatory remarks about lifestyle choices, physical or mental abilities, or racial or ethnic background
  • behaviour or language that threatens, frightens, humiliates or degrades—shouting and screaming, tone of voice, sarcasm and insults, whether face-to-face, in emails, or in graffiti
  • 'initiations' and pranks
  • interfering with a person's personal property or work equipment
  • inappropriate and unfair application of work policies and rules—involving, for example, performance management or access to leave.

Some subtle patterns of behaviour are also seen as harassment or bullying, for example:

  • ostracism—physical or social isolation; exclusion from work-related activities; not acknowledging or responding to an individual's presence or comments; leaving the room when a person enters
  • undermining—persistent and baseless criticism; unwarranted removal of responsibility; ridicule; taunts; hectoring; spreading gossip and rumours (either verbally or by email); including inappropriate remarks in emails about a person sent to and/or copied to others; belittling or derogatory remarks or actions that diminish a person's dignity (such as eye-rolling responses)
  • sabotage—giving meaningless tasks, confusing and/or contradictory instructions; inappropriately and frequently changing targets and work deadlines; unnecessary disruptions; deliberately withholding important information; deliberately failing to complete tasks or missing deadlines; insisting on petty work requirements.

Investigating bullying behaviour

An employee alleged ongoing bullying by her immediate supervisor. She said her supervisor openly criticised her work and regularly sabotaged her efforts. She said that if she made a simple error like a spelling mistake, the supervisor made disparaging comments like 'What kind of work is this? I thought graduates were supposed to be smart!' Yet, when it suited him, the supervisor took full credit for the employee's work.

The employee complained to her director, who separately questioned the employee, her supervisor and witnesses. Following further investigation, the agency's Code of Conduct delegate sanctioned (reprimanded) the supervisor and the bullying stopped.

Workplace harassment or bullying can occur:

  • between employees at the same or different classifications—it can be directed sideways, upwards at supervisors or managers as well as downwards
  • between employees of the same or opposite sex
  • between employees in the same or a different work area or agency
  • between employees and contractors and/or labour hire staff
  • during work-organised events or possibly even outside work hours
  • while off-site, for example external meetings, on regional or interstate visits, or on overseas postings.

Behaviours that are not workplace harassment

Examples of behaviours that are not harassment include:

  • expressing differences of opinion
  • providing constructive and courteous feedback, counselling or advice about work- related behaviour and performance
  • carrying out legitimate or reasonable management decisions or actions, undertaken in a reasonable way and with respect and courtesy, for example:
    • taking action to transfer an employee
    • allocating work to an employee, and setting reasonable goals, standards and deadlines
    • making a decision not to select an employee for promotion
    • warning employees about unsatisfactory performance
    • transferring or terminating excess employees
  • making a complaint about a manager's or other employee's conduct, if the complaint is made in a proper and reasonable way.

Some behaviours on their own are not breaches of the Code of Conduct

Certain behaviour on its own is not a breach of the Code of Conduct. For example:

  • openly recording meetings—tape-recording a meeting is legitimate and can lead to a more reliable and accurate record of meetings than note taking. However, secretly taping meetings, without the knowledge of all the participants, is 'inappropriate and discourteous' and a breach of the Code
  • refusing to accept 'no' for an answer—within reason, an employee is entitled to press their position, just as a supervisor is entitled to disagree and make a management decision
  • asserting authority—when opinions differ, it is legitimate for a manager to end a discussion by asserting their seniority and management prerogative
  • discussing difficult issues—while potentially stressful, having a frank, polite, calm and rational discussion between an employee and a supervisor is an appropriate way of resolving grievances.13 Discussions should remain work related and focus on particular behaviours and issues, rather than the individual.

Under pressure, an assertive management style may give way to bullying behaviour. Managers should be sensitive about how they are perceived by others and to know the best ways to communicate difficult or sensitive matters. In some situations, behaviour that is not intended to be humiliating, threatening or demeaning may cause distress and be perceived as bullying.

Perceptions matter

People's perceptions can differ about behaviour that is disrespectful or harassing. Someone might perceive a supervisor's approach as 'assertive'. Yet the person affected may think the supervisor's tone is 'inappropriate and/or rude' or 'sarcastic and belittling'.

Employees from various cultural and social backgrounds may also have different views and expectations of cultural norms and appropriate workplace behaviour.

Sometimes, even though a manager has tried to create a friendly and open environment, people working for them may feel intimidated because of the manager's status.

Taking a strategic approach

Agencies need to take a comprehensive, strategic approach to preventing harassment and bullying by aligning organisational, business and individual planning and performance. In particular, agencies should have clear behavioural expectations and standards; supportive management systems and processes; relevant management and leadership skills; and established processes for handling any concerns or issues.

The Australian Public Service Commission's guidance on embedding APS Values as a whole is based on the Values framework.14 Using the framework's elements of 'Commitment', 'Management' and 'Assurance' together, agencies can develop and review strategies that reinforce a business sense and promote agency health, including a positive workplace environment and a culture of trust.

2 Curr v. Australian Taxation Office, PR953053, 8 November 2004

3 Summary of federal and state laws can be found at: www.humanrights.gov.au/info_for_employers/law/index.html

4 www.comlaw.gov.au

5 www.comlaw.gov.au

6 www.comlaw.gov.au

7 In light of these consistently high results, this information was not collected in 2007-08.

8 www.ssa.vic.gov.au/CA2571410025903D/WebObj/PAAAct2004/$File/PAAAct2004.pdf

10 www.dpc.nsw.gov.au/personnel_handbook/index.htm

13 See generally Curr v. Australian Taxation Office, PR953053, 8 November 2004


Last reviewed: 
7 June 2018