Chapter 3: strengthening workplace culture

Chapter at a glance

The NSW public sector is undertaking work to embed the sector’s core values more completely into workplace management systems.

All public sector agencies report having basic policies in place to prevent or counter bullying. The challenge is to work out why, despite this, almost 30% of respondents to an employee survey in 2012 indicated they had experienced bullying in the previous 12 months.

It is important to take into account workplace culture and organisational context when addressing bullying.

The sector is implementing strategies to improve workplace culture, including developing executives’ capabilities, strengthening performance development and improving workforce diversity.

A workplace built on mutual trust and respect – where new ideas are welcomed and the focus is on achieving goals – is likely to enhance productivity, encourage collaboration and improve service delivery. The sector’s core values of integrity, trust, service and accountability provide a practical basis for higher performance. In strategies to embed the values in workplaces across the sector, it is therefore important to address behaviour that is inconsistent with the values.


Many factors influence the culture of a workplace: its people, leadership, systems, practices, written and unwritten rules, official and unofficial priorities, perceptions and beliefs. The way things are typically done has very real and significant effects on individual employees’ behaviours and the performance of the whole workplace. For example, one study found employee performance improved by up to 39% in workplaces where people were provided with incentives and encouragement to work on new ideas, despite the risk of uncertain outcomes or initial failures.[1]

The sector’s values provide clear criteria for enhanced relations between employees, better services to customers and clients, greater innovation, increased collaboration, higher labour productivity and stronger public confidence in the sector. As the NSW Commission of Audit commented, enshrining the core values in legislation in late 2011 was a good way to start strengthening the culture of agencies.[2] Based on the results of the People Matter Employee Survey, employees generally agreed that their work group was observing the values.

The GSE Act retains these values, and their underlying principles, but goes further than the PSEM Act by explicitly making Department Secretaries and agency heads responsible for the general conduct and management of their organisations in accordance with the values. Given the importance of leadership in driving effective culture change, this is of both symbolic and real importance.

The key is to implement the core values in a way that is meaningful, practical and relevant to employees so they are accepted as part and parcel of how things are done. Work is underway across the sector to achieve this by embedding the values into various workforce management systems. For example, the principles that support the values:

  • are incorporated in the new Capability Framework
  • have been integrated into the new Performance Development Framework
  • will inform recruitment and promotion practices
  • will be reflected in the instrument that is being developed to measure customer satisfaction.

Supporting agencies

Organisational change is typical of contemporary working life, and if not managed well can generate uncertainty and insecurity in the workplace.[3] To manage change well, organisations must consider workplace culture. To help agencies deal with these and future challenges, the PSC has been developing a comprehensive package of resources to support all employees, including managers, to effectively embed the values in their workplace policies, practices, services and conduct.

An important item in the package is a Code of Ethics and Conduct based on the sector’s core values. It sets a standard of expected behaviour for all employees across the sector, to which they can be held throughout the performance development process.

The package includes resources on leadership, culture change, governance and working effectively within the requirements of the Westminster system of government. There is a strong focus on learning and development for all employees to understand and meet their ethical obligations as public servants.


The various behaviours that constitute bullying are contradictory to the values of integrity, trust, service and accountability, and are unacceptable. Last year’s State of the NSW Public Sector Report concluded that bullying was a significant issue in the sector, particularly in light of results from the People Matter Employee Survey and the Ethics Stocktake.[4]

Workplace bullying is recognised across all sectors as a complex, serious and costly problem. In July 2012, the NSW Government estimated that bullying in NSW workplaces had cost the state’s economy almost $100 million in the previous three years, and introduced a Bullying Prevention Kit to help employers tackle the issue.[5]

In March 2013, the Public Service Commissioner directed agency heads to report on what they were doing to understand the extent of bullying in their organisations and the specific measures they had or were planning to put in place to combat it. This was the first time the Commissioner had exercised his power under the PSEM Act to issue directions to agency heads, highlighting the importance of the problem.

All agencies responded to the Commissioner’s direction in May 2013. Based on their responses, all agencies have basic policies to prevent or counter bullying and have, to varying degrees, implemented their policies through communication and training. All stated they have some form of grievance handling or complaints system that records incidents and issues (including bullying), and report relevant facts to management.

Most agencies advised that they reported the results of the People Matter Employee Survey to their employees, and have developed action plans with strategies – or modified existing plans to include strategies – to address issues brought up in the survey, particularly bullying.

Some agencies are emphasising policies and procedures within a broad culture change framework that includes developing a more ‘respectful workplace’.

The challenge is to work out why, despite the measures that agencies have in place, 29% of respondents to the People Matter Employee Survey indicated they had been bullied in the 12 months prior to the survey, and just under half indicated they had witnessed bullying in the workplace in that period.

Reasons for disconnect

Analysis from Australia and overseas shows that workplace culture exerts a powerful and pervasive influence over employee behaviour and agency performance.

Workplace culture may be one reason for a disconnect between how things should be done and how they are being done. The beliefs and work practices at the local workplace level can diverge significantly from formal or official policies on how work should be carried out. A further complication is that it is common for agencies to have more than one culture, with different sub-cultures existing in different workplaces throughout the agency. There may be a need to better align the various sub-cultures and the broader agency culture through the shared public sector values.

Another issue is the extent to which behaviour that survey respondents reported as bullying would generally be regarded as such. The context in which the behaviour occurs is important. Factors that appear to determine when behaviour is more likely to be labelled as bullying include a perceived negative intent and low levels of trust between individuals and within the organisation.[6] This combination of context and perception makes workplace bullying a complicated issue to address.

The NSW public sector is not alone in facing this issue. Levels of workforce bullying across the Victorian public sector (reported through an employee survey) have been consistent at around 20% since the sector started measuring the issue in 2004. A comparative study in 2010 showed that the level of bullying reported in public sector employee surveys is fairly similar across Australia.[7]

The experience in Victoria is instructive, particularly as the NSW People Matter Employee Survey is closely based on the Victorian survey, which is run by the Victorian State Services Authority. The Authority’s recent research revealed that, while there is a fairly clear spectrum of behaviour from respectful to disrespectful, the line between disrespectful behaviour and bullying is blurred and subjective. However, survey evidence of bullying is a useful warning indicator and is likely to need more detailed exploration before action can be taken.[8]

The research suggests that organisational context is crucial to interpreting behaviour. Importantly, it highlights the critical role of trust in defining the context and perceptions around bullying. There were three aspects of organisational culture that seemed to have the most effect on trust in the organisation: employees’ perceptions of whether leaders were modelling the organisation’s values; their confidence in grievance and dispute resolution procedures; and belief in performance management systems.

The Ethics Stocktake also found that performance management, leadership and grievance procedures are at the centre of many challenges to ethical culture in the public service. The conclusions in this qualitative study suggest that workplace bullying is a persistent and multi‑layered issue. Changing workplace culture is one of the most difficult challenges facing any organisation. It involves re-setting organisational values, employee beliefs, work practices and standards of conduct, and takes a great deal of time and effort for all employees.

Based on the observations of other jurisdictions, employee perceptions and experience will not dramatically and materially change in the short term. However, the PSC will work with agencies, unions and experts to improve prevention and management initiatives, and performance measurement techniques. The PSC will also take the opportunity to improve relevant questions in the survey to obtain a clearer picture of the situation. As the survey improves, so too will the sector’s capacity to understand and therefore respond to bullying.

In addition to a survey of employees, the PSC will also conduct a survey of agencies in 2014. The survey aims to gather information that will allow a more in-depth assessment of agency systems and processes that are in place to address bullying. This information will be important in helping the sector understand the discrepancy between employees’ perceptions that their agency is doing a good job implementing the public sector’s core values, and the perceived high levels of bullying that exist. It will also give the sector insights into why employees do not feel confident that bullying is being managed appropriately, despite agencies reporting they are putting strategies in place to address the issue. The results of the survey may help determine the most effective initiatives to improve workplace culture and how these can be implemented.

In addition to agency heads providing updates on their initiatives to address bullying, reforms under the GSE Act and improvements in the 2014 employee survey, there are a number of other workplace culture strategies that are being implemented across the sector, detailed below.

Leaders modelling the values

Agency heads have the power to influence the behaviour of their agency’s culture. Employees look at what leaders do – rather than what they say – to determine the agency’s real priorities, agendas and acceptable ways of working. For this reason, the sector will continue to focus on developing executives’ capabilities, offering professional development and assessing the performance of leaders to ensure they can positively influence the culture of their agency.

Performance development

Strengthening performance development will ensure managers and employees more clearly understand their roles and responsibilities and develop capabilities to address unacceptable behaviour through difficult conversations and performance assessment. This will help reduce the acceptance of inappropriate behaviours in the workplace.

Respect and inclusiveness

The research by the Victorian State Services Authority suggests that a continued focus on implementing the sector’s values – specifically trust – is likely to improve workplace culture. The guiding principles that underpin the core value of trust include the basic behavioural standard that all employees must build relationships based on mutual respect. While the GSE Act gives agency heads the responsibility for implementing the sector’s core values in their agencies, it is important for employees to see that they have an equal role to play in improving the culture of their workplace.

The research also shows that exclusionary behaviour was most likely to diminish a person’s sense that their organisation is concerned about their well-being. This suggests that efforts to improve inclusiveness by increasing workplace diversity and respecting others will help create a workplace culture in which bullying has no place. By working hard to embed the core values of trust, integrity, service and accountability into employees’ consciousness, the NSW public sector can begin to foster open, accepting and respectful workplaces.


[1]      Corporate Leadership Council (2002), Building the High-Performance Workforce – a quantitative analysis of the effectiveness of performance management strategies, Corporate Executive Board, Washington D.C., p.20a
[2]      NSW Commission of Audit (2012), NSW Commission of Audit Interim Report: Public Sector Management, NSW Government, Sydney, p.141
[3]      Skogstad A, Mattiesen S B, Einarsen S (2007), ‘Organisational Changes: A precursor of bullying at work?’, International Journal of Organisational Theory and Behaviour, Vol. 10 No. 1, pp.58–94
[4]      St James Ethics Centre (2012), NSW Public Service Ethics Stocktake, NSW Public Service Commission, Sydney, p.79
[5]      Pearce, G (NSW Minister for Finance and Services, Minister for the Illawarra) (2012), NSW Government to Tackle Workplace Bullying, media release, 22 July, Sydney
[6]      State Services Authority (2012), Exploring workplace behaviours: from bullying to respect, State Government of Victoria, Melbourne, p.25
[7]      State Services Authority (2012), Trends in Bullying in the Victorian Public Sector People Matter Survey 2004–2010, State Government of Victoria, Melbourne, p.30
[8]      State Services Authority (2012), Exploring workplace behaviours: from bullying to respect, State Government of Victoria, Melbourne

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