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Bullying and harassment in the APS

All Australian Public Service (APS) employees and agencies have a shared obligation to create respectful workplaces.

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

The Public Service Act 1999 (the Act) sets out the Values and Code of Conduct that apply to all APS employees. The Act highlights the responsibility of agency heads to promote and uphold the Values, and asks all employees to treat others with respect and courtesy.

SES employees have a responsibility to promote the Values and compliance with the Code of Conduct.

The APS employee census shows the APS does well in providing positive working environments. The census results also indicate high employee engagement levels and adherence to the APS Values.

However, workplace harassment and bullying continue to occur and require attention.

In the APS employee census, respondents are asked if they have been subjected to workplace harassment or bullying in the last 12 months. Over the last 5 years, the rate of harassment and bullying reported by census respondents has remained relatively stable at around 17 per cent. In 2016, this decreased slightly to sixteen percent.

During the last 12 months, have you been subjected to harassment or bullying in the workplace?

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 1.

Workplace harassment and bullying is unacceptable and is not tolerated in the APS. Depending on the nature of the harassment or bullying, it may also be unlawful under anti-discrimination legislation.

In respect to Section 13(3) of the Public Service Act 1999, “when acting in connection with APS employment, treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and without harassment”, 132 of the 190 employees investigated were found to have breached the relevant provision of the Code.

Of the respondents to the 2016 employee census who indicated they had experienced workplace harassment or bullying in the last 12 months, 60 percent indicated that they did not report the behaviour. This result suggests there is scope for agencies to do more to ensure the reporting of harassment and bullying is seen as an acceptable response.

When asked who was responsible for the harassment or bullying, census respondents most frequently reported that it was a co-worker or someone more senior than them other than their supervisor. A quarter of respondents reported that a previous supervisor was responsible for the bullying or harassment.

Differences in the experience of harassment and bullying are apparent between male and female employees. Male employees are more likely to report being subjected to someone more senior than them other than their current supervisor. Female employees are more likely to report experiencing bullying or harassment from co-workers.

Alleged perpetrators of bullying/harassment, by gender 2016

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 2.

The most commonly reported type of harassment or bullying was verbal abuse. Three per cent of respondents indicated that they had experienced sexual harassment and 8 per cent reported that they had experienced cyber-bullying. Executive level staff were more likely than staff at other classifications to report interference with work tasks. SES officers were most likely to report that they had experienced verbal abuse.

Type of bullying, by classification, 2016

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 3.

The impact that harassment and bullying has on an employee’s experience of their work is clear in the engagement scores from the 2016 employee census. Those respondents who had been subjected to or witnessed someone else being subjected to bullying or harassment have lower scores across all four dimensions of engagement when compared to those who had not experienced or witnessed bullying or harassment in the last 12 months.

Employee engagement by experience of bullying/harassment

Learn more about this chart: view data for Figure 4.

The Working Together: Promoting mental health and wellbeing at work guide outlines a number of strategies that agencies can implement to reduce bullying and harassment in the workplace. These include:

a. Promoting a positive workplace culture.
b. Identifying and calling bullying behaviours early.
c. Managing workplace stressors and risks.
d. Providing regular and respectful performance feedback.
e. Sound workplace policies can serve as a preventative tool to tackle bullying.
f. Minimising the impact of bullying on the team.

Last reviewed: 
3 July 2018