South Australia’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, Bruce Lander QC, has recently published a second report from the ICAC Public Integrity Survey that was conducted last year.
The qualitative report In Their Own Words reveals “sobering and in many instances shocking” stories from public sector workers in SA government organisations.
“Survey participants from every agency spoke of perceived incidents of bullying and harassment, and nepotism and favouritism,” the report states.
Bullying and harassment endemic in every organisation
In the qualitative component of the 2018 survey, participants were asked whether they had personally encountered inappropriate conduct in the last five years and also how vulnerable they thought their workplaces were to inappropriate conduct.
Participants from each agency mentioned numerous issues of bullying and harassment, often in tandem with nepotism.
Among the issues reported were:
- ignoring bullying;
- managers asking workers for sex;
- victim blaming; and
- only friends of managers being promoted.
A number of participants described how their exposure to inappropriate conduct had a negative impact on them. Statements included:
“I love my work but the poor treatment by my manager is impacting on my mental wellbeing.”
“Mates of managers are put into management positions who are useless and cannot do that job. This makes the whole place a joke. No one will report this as it is not hard to work out who has complained.”
“I reported the behaviour to management. Nobody cared. I chose not to renew my contract at that workplace.”
“Experienced people are being marginalised, bullied and made redundant because they know more than their managers and are therefore viewed as a threat not an asset.”
“The Chief Executive has created, promotes, participates in, perpetuates and encourages a toxic culture and environment based on favouritism, bullying, intimidation and harassment [redacted] Many people have and are still leaving the organisation as they are not able to do anything about this issue, many people who work here are currently mentally affected by the continuous and relentless bullying and harassment.”
“Often bullying occurs in a ‘passive’ way which may not be obvious to others and could in fact be difficult to prove.”
Fear and anxiety about ‘speaking up’
While Mr Lander acknowledges that “a survey does not prove the truth of the comments made”, he said it does “provide evidence of the perceptions of those who have participated”.
“Public officers spoke of fear and anxiety in reporting genuinely held suspicions of corruption or inappropriate conduct. This anxiety is perhaps justified, with participants describing public officers who ‘speak up’ as suffering kinds of victimisation such as losing or feeling forced to leave a job or the organisation,” the report states.
“Others were seen as ‘trouble makers’ by their agency. Some participants cast doubt over the utility of reporting. It stands to reason that if nothing changes as a result of making a report or if certain individuals are seen as ‘protected’, then willingness to report will be low.
“Participants also described experiencing other kinds of inappropriate conduct including bullying and harassment, favouritism, poor leadership and management, a failure to effectively address conduct issues, inappropriate storage and access of confidential information and a lack of confidence in human resource sections.
“Some workplaces were described as or inferred to be ‘toxic’.”
However, all responses weren’t bad, and the report notes “some participants, without prompting, described positive work cultures, strong integrity, appropriate integrity controls and processes for ongoing improvement in regards to promoting integrity”.
What happens next?
“All public officers are required and should feel supported to be able to speak up if they have genuine issues with conduct in public administration,” the report concludes.
“The victimisation of those who speak up is not to be tolerated.
“Agencies have an obligation to create an environment where staff are both free to report without reprisal and can be confident their reports will be handled appropriately.
“Public officers are reminded that reports to the ICAC / OPI carry with them a series of protections.
“Protections are also afforded under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2018 which came into effect 1 July 2019.
“The survey feedback should cause agencies to review their policies and procedures to ensure there are no ‘loopholes’ and that their policies and procedures are providing effective integrity controls.”