Cleaning up a Toxic Workplace Culture

In recent years, the concept of workplace culture has come into the spotlight exposing some of Australia’s largest organisations, including the Australian Defence Force in 2013, and more recently during 2016, the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

The recent independent review into the workplace culture of the AFP by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has revealed damning statistics relating to an ingrained practice of sexual harassment and bullying within the AFP.

Ms Broderick’s report found that in the past five years, when surveyed, 46 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men reported being sexually harassed, and in addition 66 per cent of women and 62 per cent of men reported instances of bullying.

In addition to the high rates of sexual harassment and bullying, a number of other key themes emerged from the report including:

  • barriers to and lack of opportunities for women to be represented in the AFP;
  • the differing impact of the AFP’s culture on men and women; and
  • the challenges associated with balancing a police career and family.

Female employees have described working life in the AFP as a “sexualised” working environment of a culture that is dominated by males which has made it very difficult for female members to “fit in”. Some employees reported having a lack of trust in the reporting systems that are available for sexual harassment and bullying complaints through a fear of being victimised as a result of making a complaint.

Ms Broderick made 24 recommendations in order to stamp out unacceptable conduct identified. AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin has indicated that he will adopt all recommendations. Commissioner Colvin commented that, “These practices will not be tolerated and I am putting in place actions which will respond positively to all 24 recommendations.”

Proposed changes to address cultural issues in the AFP include:

  • establishing a cultural reform board;
  • setting up a specialised, independent office to investigate sexual harassment and abuse;
  • advising employees and implementing a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and related incidents; and
  • adopting a “flex by default” approach, which would see a review of flexible hours undertaken.

AFP Association (AFPA) National President, Angela Smith, commented that there is a systemic issue within the AFP, and that the proposed review of the processes to manage complaints is a “huge step forward”. Commissioner Colvin stated that the AFP will be a better police force as a result.

Consequences for employers of workplace culture issues

If employers fail to appropriately manage, implement and enforce adequate policies to challenge workplace culture issues, they may find themselves at the receiving end of an unfair dismissal claim where an employee is dismissed as a result of conduct contrary to an unenforced workplace policy.

To prevent this from occurring, employers must consistently enforce policies that are in place when misconduct occurs. A policy that is not enforced cannot suddenly be relied upon in order to terminate employment. For example, in a workplace where there is an accepted culture of swearing, an employer will have difficulty terminating an employee for swearing if a policy was in place but never enforced.

If a workplace culture issue has been identified and potentially breaches a policy, or is simply unacceptable, the employer needs to give their employees a grace period, in which everyone is warned that the conduct is to stop, and that disciplinary action may be taken for any further breaches once the grace period expires. During the grace period, employees should receive training relating to the policies to ensure they understand their obligations.

How can a workplace culture change?

Issues become “systemic” in a workplace when the causes of those issues are embedded into an organisation’s structures and practices. The AFPA’s Angela Smith believes that one of the biggest problems in the AFP is a lack of management skills of those in managerial positions. On this issue Angela says:

“I believe the key to preventing these types of behaviours is to effectively and continually train employees in management skills. The AFP seems to promote on technical or operational experience and skills. That’s only half the process. Management skills are extremely important and are often overlooked in the promotions process.”

An employee who is targeted as a result of a toxic workplace culture needs to feel supported in making a complaint and be confident that they will not be victimised as a result. This requires an organisation to establish victim sensitive processes through which internal complaints can be received and managed within a supportive culture embedded in the organisation.

Managers and those in leadership positions need to make it clear to employees that behaviours borne out of an inappropriate workplace culture will not be tolerated. Angela Smith commented that:

“Through proper training in management skills, employees will be confident in managing and calling out practices of toxic behavior. People often shy away from managing their staff because they are afraid they will in turn be labelled a bully. Employers also need to be strong and when a manager of people is not doing an effective job and not addressing toxic practices, that manager needs assistance.”

In organisations such as the AFP, where there is an identified issue regarding gender diversity, employers should facilitate and promote flexible working arrangements to all employees, not just female employees.

Changing workplace culture takes time. Many employees may accept that a change in culture is required and will support future reform. However, others may not necessarily agree that a problem exists and therefore, some backlash is possible.

Since Ms Broderick’s report, backlash has already been experienced, including comments from AFPA members who have expressed feelings of discrimination. Angela Smith believes this should have been expected, and that such responses need to be managed by accepting that where cultural change is promoted there is always the risk of some level of “push back” by existing staff. There also has to be an understanding from within that there is no benefit to alienating any part of the workforce.

Angela Smith believes communication with employees is key in the AFP. She commented that, “the Broderick review was definitely needed within the AFP however the report was strong on presenting the problems, but short on solutions. I don’t want this to be seen as a criticism, it’s that so much more could have been achieved with this review, with signposts to show ways to deal with the concerns and it may have missed an opportunity, importantly, to bring everyone along.”

Ms Broderick’s report can be accessed here: https://www.afp.gov.au/sites/default/files/PDF/Reports/Broderick-Report-2016.pdf (

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