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Section 3: Relationships in the workplace

3.1 Summary

3.1.1 Workplace relationships are critical to organisational performance and individual well-being. The quality of relationships between managers and their staff, within teams, and with colleagues across the agency can make jobs more rewarding, more stimulating and more engaging. A motivated, committed and engaged workforce is crucial to productivity.

3.1.2 Workplace relationships cover the employer-employee work relationship and working with colleagues.

3.2 APS Values

3.2.1 The APS Values are set out in the Public Service Act 1999 (PS Act). The Australian Public Service Commissioner's Directions 2013 (the Directions) determine the scope and application of the Values. Agency heads and employees are required to comply with the Directions. The Directions that are most relevant to relationships between employees in the workplace are outlined below in relation to each of the Values.

3.2.2 The APS Employment Principles, set out in section 10A of the PS Act, are also relevant to relationships in the workplace.

Committed to Service

3.2.3 The Committed to Service Value provides for an Australian Public Service (APS) that is professional, objective, innovative and efficient, that works collaboratively to achieve the best results for the Australian community and the Government.

3.2.4 The Directions about this Value require APS employees to support collaboration and teamwork, internally and externally, including with other agencies.


3.2.5 The Respectful Value provides for an APS that respects all people, including their rights and heritage.

3.2.6 The Directions about this Value require that employees treat all people including work colleagues with dignity and to recognise that all people have value. Diversity must be recognised and fostered.

Accountable, Impartial and Ethical

3.2.7 The Accountable Value provides for an APS that is open and accountable to the Australian community under the law and within the framework of ministerial responsibility. The Directions about this Value require employees to demonstrate that their actions and decisions have been made with appropriate consideration and are able to be explained to the people affected by them, including their colleagues. Employees are accountable for their actions and decisions through statutory and administrative reporting systems, including through performance management systems.

3.2.8 The Impartial Value provides for an APS that is apolitical and provides the Government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence. Employees must ensure that management and staffing decisions are made on a basis that is independent of the political party system, free from political bias and not influenced by the individual's political beliefs.

3.2.9 The Ethical Value provides for an APS that demonstrates leadership, is trustworthy, and acts with integrity in all it does. This includes reporting and addressing misconduct and other unacceptable behaviour by colleagues in a fair, timely and effective way.

3.3 Additional responsibilities

3.3.1 The APS Code of Conduct (the Code) and the PS Act broadly set out duties and responsibilities of employees. In addition, other enactments and the common law are the source of further duties.

Compliance with a lawful and reasonable direction

3.3.2 Employees are required to follow directions that are both lawful and reasonable and given by someone with authority to do so. This obligation applies pursuant to the common law and as recognised in the Code.

3.3.3 A direction must be reasonable in the circumstances and needs to be proportionate to the end to be achieved.

3.3.4 A direction needs to contain the language of command, and specify what actions should and/or should not be taken. A direction can take many forms such as a highly formal document or an oral instruction.

Care and diligence in connection with employment

3.3.5 Employees are required to act with care and diligence in connection with APS employment.

3.3.6 Care and diligence have their ordinary dictionary meanings of 'serious attention and solicitude to work' and 'earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken'. [11] The standard of care and diligence required of an employee may depend on their role and level of responsibility. For example, the level of care and diligence required of senior managers responsible for the delivery of a program of work may be higher than that of other employees delivering single elements of that program. It is expected that employees are fair minded and take reasonable steps to keep themselves informed, capable and aware of the law when exercising their role and responsibilities.

3.3.7 In some cases, the skills and experience of the employee may be relevant to whether they have acted with care and diligence. For example:

  1. an employee who has received training in a specialist skill may be expected to exercise those skills — a person who was known not to have those skills could not reasonably be expected to exercise them
  2. an employee with many years of relevant experience might reasonably be expected to discharge their duties more effectively than an employee who had no previous directly relevant experience.

Duty of loyalty and fidelity

3.3.8 The courts have confirmed that APS employees are bound by a common law duty of loyalty and fidelity to their employer and may have common law obligations that go beyond this given their role in supporting responsible government. [12] This may include, for example, obligations in respect of confidential information.

3.3.9 The application of this duty in the context of disclosing information is outlined in Section 4: Managing information.

3.4 Unacceptable behaviour

3.4.1 The Fair Work Commission has made clear that the community expects a standard of behaviour that allows employees to go to work each day and do their jobs without having their personal dignity diminished. [13]

3.4.2 The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act) requires employees to manage risks to health and safety, including workplace bullying, by eliminating them as much as is reasonably practicable.

3.4.3 The Code requires APS employees, when acting in connection with APS employment, to treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and without harassment.

3.4.4 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 personal values need to get along with each other in the workplace.

Workplace harassment

3.4.5 Workplace harassment entails offensive, belittling or threatening behaviour directed at an individual or group of employees. Such behaviour is unwelcome, unsolicited, usually unreciprocated and usually, but not always, repeated. Reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable way is not workplace harassment.

3.4.6 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.

3.4.7 Workplace harassment can involve any person in the workplace. For example, it can occur between employees at any classification level, or may involve contractors and labour hire staff.

3.4.8 Some forms of harassment may also be workplace bullying. Bullying at work, as defined at section 789FD of the Fair Work Act 2009, occurs when a person or a group of people repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards a worker or a group of workers at work, and the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety. Bullying does not include reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.

3.4.9 Safe Work Australia has published Dealing with Workplace Bullying—A Workers Guide to help employees determine if workplace bullying is occurring and how the matter may be resolved.

3.4.10 The Fair Work Act 2009 provides that a worker may apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop bullying at work from continuing. Information about how to make an application for an order to stop bullying is available on the Fair Work Commission's website.

3.4.11 The Fair Work Commission's Anti-Bullying Benchbook is a useful resource for those seeking to understand what is considered reasonable in the context of the Fair Work Commission's anti-bullying jurisdiction. It may also prove helpful in the context of understanding harassment.

3.4.12 Examples of behaviours that are not, in themselves, harassment include:

  1. expressing differences of opinion
  2. making a complaint about a manager's or other employee's conduct, if the complaint is made in a proper and reasonable way - see also Section 9: Reporting suspected misconduct
  3. performance management, if it is conducted in a reasonable manner.

3.4.13 Some forms of harassment may also be discrimination. Under discrimination law it is unlawful to treat a person less favourably on the basis of particular protected attributes such as a person's sex, race, disability or age. The law also has specific provisions relating to sexual harassment, racial hatred and disability harassment. Examples of discriminatory harassment include:

  1. telling insulting jokes about particular racial groups
  2. sending explicit or sexually suggestive emails or text messages
  3. displaying racially offensive or pornographic posters or screen savers
  4. making derogatory comments or taunts about a person's disability
  5. asking intrusive questions about someone's personal life, including his or her sex life.

3.4.14 The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) can investigate and conciliate complaints under anti-discrimination legislation. Further information is available from the AHRC's website.

Failure to act with respect and courtesy

3.4.15 Behaviour that falls outside the definition of workplace harassment may still constitute a failure to act with respect and courtesy. Examples include:

  1. questioning a colleague in a raised voice, accusing them of bias, or claiming they are unprincipled
  2. yelling and/or speaking without allowing others to be heard
  3. ignoring and working around someone who should be involved in the process
  4. displaying a contemptuous attitude towards other employees
  5. attempting humour by diminishing the dignity of a co-worker
  6. making belittling or derogatory remarks that diminish the dignity of other staff
  7. leaning toward or standing over a person so that they feel uncomfortable.

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

  1. Openly recording meetings—audio or video recording a meeting is legitimate and can lead to a more reliable and accurate record than note taking. However, secretly recording colleagues without their knowledge is inappropriate and discourteous, and in some circumstances may be unlawful.
  2. Challenging decisions when appropriate—within reason, an employee is entitled to press their position, just as a manager is entitled to take that position into account and make a management decision that disagrees with it.
  3. Asserting authority—when opinions differ, it is legitimate for a manager to end a discussion, after listening to the various points of view, by asserting their seniority and management prerogative.
  4. Discussing difficult issues—while potentially stressful, having a frank, polite, calm and rational discussion between an employee and a manager is an appropriate way of resolving grievances. [14] It may also have the effect of clearing up any misunderstandings or inaccurate assumptions. Discussions should remain work related and focus on particular behaviours and issues, rather than the individual.

Internet and email use

3.4.17 Email can promote informality and the sense of 'having a conversation' rather than writing official correspondence. Emails and other forms of online communication, such as instant messaging and social media posts, are official records. Online communication may also be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act 1982. Employees are advised to take care that the content is accurate and the language and tone appropriate. Section 4: Managing information contains further information on recordkeeping requirements.

3.4.18 Employees are advised to follow agency policies and must obey agency directions regarding internet and email use.


The Australian Public Service Commission publishes guidance for agencies on managing the risks of cyber-bullying of employees by members of the public. While this guidance is directed to managers of employees who may be exposed to this specific risk, it is a useful starting point for employees seeking to understand their obligations when interacting with colleagues and others online.

Harassment contact officers

3.4.19 APS employees have an obligation to report suspected misconduct, including harassment and other unacceptable behaviour. See Section 9: Reporting suspected misconduct for further information.

3.4.20 Many agencies provide employees with access to specialist contact officers, sometimes called harassment or diversity contact officers. No specific legislative requirement exists for this practice. However, it is good practice. Contact officers do not resolve complaints. Instead, they provide information to employees, managers and supervisors about:

  1. processes and options for resolving complaints
  2. what is harassing behaviour
  3. sources of support—for example line managers, human resources staff and employee assistance programs.


Contact officers cannot always guarantee confidentiality, especially if there is a risk to employee health and safety. As a general rule, a contact officer should not give advice to both the complainant and the person against whom the complaint is made.

3.4.21 Harassment may also be 'disclosable conduct' as defined in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013. Information about how to report disclosable conduct should be published on the relevant agency's website. Further information about the public interest disclosure scheme is available on the website.

3.5 Common queries

3.5.1 Guidance on matters commonly raised with the Australian Public Service Commission's Ethics Advisory Service is outlined here.

Conduct after hours

3.5.2 Some elements of the Code apply to behaviours 'in connection with employment' while others apply 'at all times'.

3.5.3 The term 'in connection with employment' is not confined to the performance of job-related tasks or other conduct in the course of employment. Employees are required to comply with the Code when engaged in activities outside work hours and away from the workplace where there is some connection with their APS employment. This includes, for example, on work-related travel and during training. In certain circumstances it may extend to the use of social media or other online forums.

3.5.4 APS employees are entitled to a private life free of employer intrusion. However, the Code may apply to behaviours that, on their face, appear to be largely private. The Code applies where there is a connection between the behaviour and the agency's confidence in the capacity of the employee to perform their duties professionally. Also, the Code may be relevant because a behaviour may impact on the reputation of the agency or the APS.

3.5.5 See also Section 6: Employees as citizens for further information on employees making public comment, including online comments.

Safe workplaces

3.5.6 The WHS Act requires employers and employees to maintain healthy and safe workplaces.

3.5.7 The WHS Act provides for health and safety committees, comprising employer and employee representatives, to facilitate cooperation on occupational health and safety matters.

3.5.8 Under section 28 of the WHS Act, while at work each APS employee must:

  1. take reasonable care for his or her own health and safety
  2. take reasonable care that his or her acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of other persons
  3. comply, so far as the worker is reasonably able, with any reasonable instruction that is given by the person conducting the business to allow the person to comply with the WHS Act and
  4. co-operate with any reasonable policy or procedure of the person conducting the business relating to health or safety at the workplace that has been notified to workers.

3.5.9 Comcare, the work health and safety regulator for the Commonwealth jurisdiction, has developed the Work Health and Safety Codes of Practice 2011 to provide guidance on meeting obligations under the WHS Act and Regulations.

Misuse of alcohol or other drugs

3.5.10 If an APS employee misuses alcohol or other drugs before, during or after working hours they may be in breach of the Code. This may occur if their performance, the safety of colleagues or the reputation of the APS or their agency is adversely affected. For example, an employee whose performance is affected by alcohol or drugs may fail to act with care and diligence in connection with their employment (section 13(2) of the PS Act), or they may be in breach of other Australian laws such as the WHS Act (section 13(4) of the PS Act).

3.5.11 The use of illicit drugs brings employees into contact with criminals and makes them vulnerable to blackmail. Some agencies have implemented drug and alcohol testing. It is also open to agency heads to issue reasonable directions to employees about their use of drugs or alcohol.

3.5.12 Agencies generally have policies that address the misuse of alcohol and other drugs. Further information about alcohol misuse and illicit drugs can be obtained from the Department of Health's website.

Fostering diversity

3.5.13 The Directions relating to the Respectful value require employees, having regard to their duties and responsibilities, to recognise and foster diversity. The APS Employment Principles also provide for a safe workplace where diversity is recognised and fostered. To foster diversity in the workplace, employees may need to:

  1. develop the work skills and abilities of others to help them reach their full potential, for example through training and support mechanisms such as reasonable adjustment
  2. recognise and value diverse skills, cultural values and backgrounds of people in the workplace
  3. encourage others to celebrate diversity
  4. implement workplace structures, systems and procedures to balance work and personal responsibilities.

3.5.14 Employees should uphold the principle of equal employment opportunity and act in accordance with policies aimed at addressing disadvantage. Disadvantage may be based on sex, Indigenous status, disability, race or ethnicity, or other differences such as age, sexual orientation, working styles, socio-economic background, educational level and family responsibilities.

3.5.15 Employees should be sensitive to diverse cultures, including different customs and personal behaviour.

Fair employment decisions and merit

3.5.16 The APS Employment Principles require employment decisions to be fair. Engagement and promotion decisions are to be based on merit.

3.5.17 Treating people fairly is fundamental to good management.

3.5.18 Engagement and promotion decisions must be based on merit. Section 10A(2) of the PS Act clarifies that a decision relating to engagement or promotion is based on merit if:

  1. all eligible members of the community were given a reasonable opportunity to apply to perform the relevant duties
  2. an assessment is made of the relative suitability of the candidates for the duties, using a competitive selection process
  3. the assessment is based on the relationship between the candidates' work related qualities and the work-related qualities genuinely required for the duties
  4. the assessment focuses on the relative capacity of the candidates to achieve outcomes related to the duties
  5. the assessment is the primary consideration in making the decision.

3.5.19 Chapter 2 of the Directions sets out the minimum requirements that agency heads and employees must meet to uphold merit in recruitment and selection.

3.5.20 The Directions set out a number of affirmative measures which modify the merit principle to promote diversity. In addition, exemptions apply in certain circumstances to State and Territory and Parliamentary Service employees, election candidates, statutory office holders and former employees. Exemptions may also apply following machinery of government changes.

3.5.21 Employment decisions that involve assignment of duties at or below an employee's classification level and opportunities to perform higher duties must be fair. The minimum requirements for decisions relating to assignment of duties and movement of employees between agencies are set out in Part 2.3 of the Directions.

Bias in recruitment and promotion

3.5.22 Employees making employment decisions must take reasonable steps to avoid any conflict of interest, real or apparent, in connection with their duties. If a conflict of interest cannot be avoided and it has the capacity to impact on the decision it must be disclosed so it can be managed. Section 5: Conflict of interest subsection 5.6 Personal Relationships provides guidance on managing an assessment process where an employee involved in a recruitment or promotion decision, for example as a panel member, has a relationship with an applicant.

3.5.23 Promotion and engagement decisions, including the assessment of each candidate's relative suitability to perform the job, should be clearly and concisely recorded.

3.5.24 Further information about recruitment and promotion in the APS is available on the Australian Public Service Commission's website.

Honesty in recruitment and promotion

3.5.25 Employees who are applicants for recruitment or promotion must ensure that the information they provide is complete and accurate. This may require disclosure of information that could indicate a heightened integrity risk. Disclosure may involve prior instances of APS misconduct, or criminal convictions that may be reasonably connected with the individual's APS duties and responsibilities. Investigations into suspected misconduct that were not finalised because the employee resigned during the course of an investigation may also need to be disclosed.

3.5.26 It may be acceptable for an employee to assist a colleague in preparing for a selection process. This could include, for example, reviewing an application for typographical errors or structure, or practicing interview techniques. It is not appropriate for an employee to write a colleague's application for them.

3.5.27 Employees must behave honestly and with integrity when giving a reference. Referees should have the courage to provide adverse information about the applicant where necessary, in the full knowledge that this information will be put to the applicant as part of the process. It is good practice for a referee who would feel obliged to offer an adverse comment, to alert the applicant to this when asked to be a referee. See also Section 4: Managing information.

Review of actions

3.5.28 Employees have a right to fair treatment in the workplace. APS decision-makers may need to consider the requirements of the administrative law framework when making decisions that affect other employees. Under section 33 of the PS Act, non-Senior Executive Service employees may seek review in most circumstances where they have a complaint about an action or decision relating to their employment. [15] Other avenues of review may also be available.

3.5.29 Information about the review of actions scheme is available from the Merit Protection Commissioner's webpages on the Australian Public Service Commission's website.

3.5.30 An employee wishing to lodge an application for review must apply to their agency head in the first instance for most employment-related decisions and actions. If an employee is not satisfied with the outcome of an agency review, or if the agency head considers the action is not reviewable, the employee can apply to the Merit Protection Commissioner for external review.

3.5.31 In the case of findings of Code of Conduct breaches, and sanctions other than termination of employment imposed as a result of those findings, employees and former employees can apply for review directly to the Merit Protection Commissioner.

3.5.32 Making an application for review does not prevent an agency from proceeding with an action, or implementing a decision, that is subject to a review application.

3.5.33 Employees are encouraged to discuss concerns about their employment with their immediate supervisor as they arise. They can also seek advice from other appropriate sources within their agency. Alternative dispute mechanisms are increasingly being used to good effect by agencies to resolve employee grievances, saving time and money and rebuilding trusting relationships in the workplace.

Review of security clearance decisions

3.5.34 Security clearance decisions are made by the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency, which is part of the Department of Defence. If an APS employee is not satisfied with a decision relating to their security clearance, they should first seek review by writing to the Secretary of the Department of Defence. If not satisfied with the response there may also be an avenue of review available through the Merit Protection Commissioner.

Agency policies and procedures

  1. Useful sources of advice for agencies on developing productive and respectful workplace relationships include the Guide for preventing and responding to workplace bullying (2013, Safe Work Australia), the Model Code of Practice—How to Manage Work Health and Safety Risks (2011, Safe Work Australia) and the Anti-Bullying Benchbook (2014, Fair Work Commission).
  2. Agencies that provide employees with access to specialist harassment contact officers are advised to ensure that these officers have appropriate training, support and assistance in understanding the nature of harassment, in responding to the needs of diverse employees, and in dealing with complaints in line with agency processes and the law.
  3. Under common law, and as recognised in the Code, an agency head has the power to direct an employee and can expect these directions to be followed. The direction must be both lawful and reasonable, and must be given by someone with authority to do so. Appendix 5 of the Australian Public Service Commission's guidance Handling Misconduct provides advice on how a lawful and reasonable direction may be expressed.
  4. Agencies may wish to provide directions or guidance to employees on the types of private conduct that may be considered relevant to employment in the agency.


[11] Clause 1.4 of the Directions clearly sets out what it means to be respectful. 'Courtesy' is given its ordinary meaning: 'excellence of manners or behaviour; politeness' (Macquarie Concise Dictionary).

[12] Bennett v President, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (2003) 134 FCR 334.

[13] Curr v Australian Taxation Office, PR953053, 8 November 2004.

[14] See generally Curr v.Australian Taxation Office, PR953053, 8 November 2004.

[15] Certain actions are not reviewable, and these are listed in Schedule 1 to the Public Service Regulations 1999.

Last reviewed: 
6 June 2018