APS employees are expected to adhere to high standards of conduct in their dealings with clients and other members of the public, including in circumstances where members of the public react disproportionately or with anger. Employee responses should be professional and courteous, consistent with the APS Values, Employment Principles, and Code of Conduct. The Value Committed to Service requires APS employees to engage effectively with the community, and work actively to provide responsive, client-focused service delivery. Nevertheless, the requirements of the APS Values, Employment Principles, and Code of Conduct do not oblige APS employees to submit to abuse—whether in person or online.
Dealing with members of the public who are demanding, abusive, or aggressive can be stressful and at times frightening for employees. Employees may have concerns about their personal security, and may feel the impact of stress on their health.
Agencies have a responsibility both to manage the risk to employees' health and safety and to provide employees with support and counselling to manage the impact of cyber-bullying.
Agencies should encourage, and provide avenues for, employees to report cyber-bullying by clients or members of the public to supervisors, Work Health and Safety (WH&S) managers or coordinators, or senior managers to enable action to be taken. Employees may choose to raise concerns initially with Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs), or Harassment Contact Officers (HCOs). Agencies will need to consider what additional support and resources managers, WH&S managers or coordinators, HSRs, and HCOs may need to be able to respond effectively to concerns about cyber-bullying.
The line manager has a critical role in managing the effects of cyber-bullying on their team, as well as in supporting employees who have experienced cyber-bullying. A supportive manager and team can help to buffer employees against the impact of cyber-bullying. Managers should encourage employees to access the agency's employee assistance program and provide other support and adjustments to work where necessary.
Cyber-bullying is a problem with multiple dimensions. Local managers may require assistance and advice from agency specialists, including IT, web services, people management, legal services, and security, to manage the problem effectively.
4.1 Managing the impact on employee health
As with all types of bullying, cyber-bullying can have a serious impact on individuals' mental and physical health.[i] Cyber-bullying can therefore create a work health and safety risk.
APS agencies have a duty of care under the WH&S Act in respect of workers' health and safety. Where cyber-bullying emerges as a work health and safety risk, APS agencies (including senior executives[ii]) have an obligation to protect the health and safety of workers from this risk, as far as is reasonably practicable.[iii]
Further information on the obligations under the WH&S Act is available from the Comcare website at http://www.comcare.gov.au/.
Where an employee has been subjected to cyber-bullying, managers may find useful guidance on recognising signs and signals of mental ill health, and preventative measures, in the Commission's joint guide with Comcare, Working Together: Promoting mental health and wellbeing at work.
4.2 Managing the impact on employee security
Agencies should also consider how they might assist employees who are being threatened with physical or other harm online or whose work-related personal information has been subject to unauthorised disclosure.
These matters should be referred to the agency's IT security or physical/personnel security area. For example, an agency may be able to change the affected employee's contact details, or remove them from the departmental contact list in more serious cases. This could also extend in some circumstances to assisting employees to obtain a silent personal phone number, or silent elector status on the electoral roll, if the employee believes that they or their family could be at risk.[iv]
Information on protections available under the law, including from criminal conduct, is covered in Part 6.5 of this guide.
[ii] An officer in Subsection 247(1) of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 ('the WH&S Act'), is defined as a person who makes, or participates in making, decisions that affect the whole, or a substantial part, of a business or undertaking of the Commonwealth.
[iii] Safe Work Australia. 2011. How to Manage Work Health and Safety Risks—Code of Practice. This Code of Practice provides further guidance on the risk management process.
[iv] For more information on becoming a silent elector, contact the Australian Electoral Commission.