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"Broken culture" and bullying at government agency

14 November 2013

Last week the Sydney Morning Herald reported some surprising behavioural and cultural issues which have come to light from inside a NSW government agency. The agency in question often deals with complaints from others regarding bullying, but is now needing to look inward at what appears to be a serious ongoing problem.

The article reports that measures taken to tackle bullying issues have not been enough and that a significant cultural shift is needed, although this may be tough to achieve. Despite the existence of a hotline for staff to call anonymously, only small numbers were coming forward, which was taken as a positive sign by the employer. Unfortunately it was later discovered that staff reticence had more to do with fear of exposure, as some employees who had contacted the hotline had subsequently had their identities revealed. This coupled with a lack of faith in any remedial action being taken meant that the problem was more widespread than first thought.

University of NSW senior lecturer Dr Carlo Caponecchia described the situation as a ''toxic and unsafe work environment with a broken culture''.

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Speaking about workplace culture at a recent seminar series, business leader Phil Di Bella noted that culture should form the basis of people decisions for managers and that culture cannot simply be created by management for the organisation using a "top-down" approach. Discussing culture in relation to people management, recruitment and retention, Aussie Farmers Dairy chief executive Peter Skene further stated that employers should be mindful of how significantly one employee's behaviour can affect the whole team, saying that "Attitudes are contagious."

The problems faced by the NSW agency are now the subject of a parliamentary inquiry. The comments of experts about the case show that workplace culture is not something that should be taken lightly by employers. Allowing cultural problems to develop could pose a significant risk to a business and be difficult and costly to remedy once established.

iHR Australia provides Workplace Relations services, including workplace inquiries and assessments to help organisations identify and address a range of issues.

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