Go to top of page

Sect 3.9 Working with APS colleagues

Relevant Values and elements of the Code of Conduct

APS Values

  • The APS is a public service in which employment decisions are based on merit.
  • The APS provides a workplace that is free from discrimination and recognises and utilises the diversity of the Australian community it serves.
  • The APS establishes workplace relations that value communication, consultation, cooperation and input from employees on matters that affect their workplace.
  • The APS provides a fair, flexible, safe and rewarding workplace.
  • The APS provides a fair system of review of decisions taken in respect of APS employees.

APS Code of Conduct

  • An APS employee must act with care and diligence in the course of APS employment.
  • An APS employee, when acting in the course of APS employment, must treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and without harassment.
  • An APS employee must comply with any lawful and reasonable direction given by someone in the employee's agency has authority to give the direction.
  • 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.

Cooperative and productive working relationships are at the heart of values-based management. While employers have an obligation to provide a safe, harassment-free, flexible and rewarding workplace, APS employees have an obligation to obey lawful instructions and contribute effectively to corporate management.

APS employees are bound by the Fair Work Act and other employment related legislation that applies also to private sector employees, including the:

They are also bound by the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.

Merit principle

Section 10(2) of the PS Act clarifies that a decision relating to engagement or promotion is based on merit if:

  1. an assessment is made of the relative suitability of the candidates for the duties, using a competitive selection process
  2. the assessment is based on the relationship between the candidates' work related qualities and the work-related qualities genuinely required for the duties
  3. the assessment focuses on the relative capacity of the candidates to achieve outcomes related to the duties
  4. the assessment is the primary consideration in making the decision.

Public Service Commissioner's Direction 2.3 and Chapter 4 of the Directions set out the minimum requirements that agency heads and employees must meet to uphold and promote merit in employment.

In accordance with s. 19 of the PS Act, a Minister cannot direct an agency head about employment decisions. For senior positions an agency head may seek the Minister's views about the relative merits of candidates known to the Minister, but the final decision rests with the agency head, must be based on merit and must not be subject to Ministerial direction. A representative of the Public Service Commissioner must endorse the processes for all Senior Executive Service engagements and promotions22.

Workplace diversity

Workplace diversity aims to make best use of people's backgrounds, skills, talents and perspectives, to ensure fairness and improve productivity. Managers are encouraged to recognise, value and develop the different skills and competencies of employees through flexible employment practices and ways of doing work to enhance agency and employee performance. Agencies should seek a balanced workforce where different backgrounds and perspectives are drawn on to maximise effectiveness. Good diversity practices also enable agencies to contribute to the fairness of the overall Australian workforce. An agency that provides services direct to the public should pay particular attention to the diversity of its workforce so that it meets the needs of its customers and clients.

Section 18 of the PS Act requires agency heads to establish a workplace diversity programme that assists agencies to uphold the APS Values.

Also, Public Service Commissioner's Direction 2.13 and Chapter 3 of the Directions, require agencies to develop measures to remedy any employment background related disadvantages on the basis of being an Aboriginal or a Torres Strait Islander, gender, race or ethnicity or physical or mental disability. Under the Directions, APS employees must help to ensure that these anti-discrimination measures are implemented.

Review of actions

Under s. 33 of the PS Act, non-SES employees are entitled to apply for review of actions that relate to their employment23.

Fair treatment in the workplace is not just an employee's right. A productive workplace requires trust, and access to a credible internal review process that promotes trust and improves decision making. Although good communication and employee participation in management processes should reduce the need for reviews, it will not eliminate the need for a credible review process.

More information about review of actions is in the APS Commission publication Review of actions, available from the Commission's website.

Discrimination and harassment

Eliminating discrimination

It is unlawful to discriminate against or harass a person at work, and in most other areas of public life. APS employees must comply with all Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws:

Investigating complaints

The President of the Australian Human Rights Commission can investigate and conciliate complaints under anti-discrimination legislation24. The Federal Court and Federal Magistrates Court can determine complaints that are not conciliated, and their decisions are enforceable.

The Australian Human Rights Commission can also inquire into and report on complaints about discrimination on the basis of other forms of discrimination covered by the HREOC Act. It can recommend payment of damages or compensation but cannot make any binding determination. The Federal Court has no jurisdiction to determine such complaints, but can judicially review the Commission's decisions. Further information about the Commission is available from its website at: www.humanrights.gov.au.

Workplace harassment and bullying

Agency heads and other senior leaders have a responsibility to foster positive workplace environments where people treat each other and the community with respect, and where harassment and bullying are unacceptable. The public service should be a good place to work for everyone.

Workplace harassment entails offensive, belittling or threatening behaviour directed at an individual or group of APS employees. The behaviour is unwelcome, unsolicited, usually unreciprocated and usually (but not always) repeated. It makes the workplace or association with work unpleasant, humiliating or intimidating for the individual or group targeted. It can make it difficult for effective work to be done. The requirement in the Code of Conduct that employees treat everyone with respect and courtesy and without harassment was reinforced by a case before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission25 involving the termination of employment of an APS employee whose behaviour failed to meet that requirement.

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 should not be confused with advice or counselling on work performance or work-related behaviour of an individual or group, which might include critical comments about work performance. Feedback or counselling on work performance or work-related behaviour differs from harassment in that feedback or counselling is intended to assist employees to improve work performance or change behaviour. Feedback or counselling should be constructive, not humiliating or threatening.

Legitimate management actions or decisions, such as allocating work and setting reasonable goals, standards and deadlines or asserting authority, undertaken in a reasonable and respectful way, are not harassment and bullying.

Useful sources of advice on creating positive, safe and productive workplaces include:

  • Performance management in the APS: A strategic approach (2001, Management Advisory Committee)
  • Sharpening the focus: Managing performance in the APS (2006, Australian Public Service Commission)
  • Bullying in the workplace: A guide to prevention for managers and supervisors (2007, Comcare)
  • Respect: Promoting a culture free from harassment and bullying (2009, Australian Public Service Commission)

Health and safety

The WH&S Act is the principal legislation that governs the management of occupational health and safety in the workplace. The Act has a preventive focus. It places legal obligations on management and employees, and requires agencies to:

  • take all reasonable steps to protect the health, safety and welfare of employees by providing and maintaining a safe work environment, including safe work practices
  • to consult with employees and, if requested, employee representatives to develop health and safety management arrangements that will enable effective co-operation between the employer and employees in promoting, developing and reviewing measures to ensure its employees' health, safety and welfare at work
  • monitor employees' health and safety at work, and the conditions of the workplaces under the employer's control
  • provide necessary information, instruction, training and supervision to allow employees to perform their work safely
  • to maintain appropriate information and records relating to its employees' health and safety.

Agencies use different methods to demonstrate commitment to the occupational health and safety of their employees such as:

  • providing employees and families access to employee assistance programmes
  • conducting health and safety awareness programmes such as 'health weeks'
  • providing employees and families access to free inoculation programmes
  • subsidising employee membership to health clubs and gymnasiums
  • offering free eye testing.

The WH&S Act also provides for health and safety committees, comprising employer and employee representatives, to facilitate cooperation on occupational health and safety issues, thus contributing to the maintenance of healthy and safe workplaces.

The Act outlines the obligations of managers and employees. For example, while at work, employees are expected to take all reasonable and practicable steps to:

  • use equipment in accordance with instructions issued by management
  • not risk the health and safety of other people
  • cooperate with those who have obligations under the Act.


Government workplaces have been 'smoke free' since 1988. APS employees and others working or visiting the APS are not permitted to smoke in the workplace. There are agency-specific policies that set out the responsibilities of APS employees in relation to smoking. There should be no disruption to work caused by employees leaving the workplace to smoke. To encourage the health of employees, some agencies support employee participation in 'quit-smoking' programmes and sponsor health promotion activities.

Misuse of other drugs including alcohol

If an APS employee misuses alcohol or other drugs and this adversely affects their performance, the safety of colleagues or the reputation of the APS, they may be in breach of the Code of Conduct and could be subject to misconduct action.

Agencies generally have agency-specific policies that address the misuse of alcohol and other drugs, which should take into account the complex nature of the problem. Further information on the issues of alcohol misuse and illicit drugs can be obtained at the Department of Health and Ageing's website at: www.health.gov.au.

Counselling services

Agencies generally provide some counselling assistance to employees who are experiencing work-related or personal difficulties. There may be people within the agency who have special counselling skills to assist with problems. Alternatively, agencies may provide access to external professional counselling services, such as employee assistance programmes. These programmes are usually available to both APS employees and their families.

In cases where an employee has sought assistance, it is important that all information provided is treated as confidential.

All discussions on work performance, including issues covered by this chapter, should be conducted in private.

22 See Public Service Commissioner's Direction 6.3

23 Certain actions are not reviewable, and these are listed in Schedule 1 to the Public Service Regulations 1999

24 Racial Discrimination Act 1975, Sex Discrimination Act 1984, Disability Discrimination Act 1992, Age Discrimination Act 2004

25 AIRC, PR932560, Purser v AGD (2003)

Last reviewed: 
8 June 2018