A disturbing new report — as yet unpublished, but shown to Crikey sister site The Mandarin — reveals Australia’s Defence Department still has a long way to go in tackling gendered abuse and other unacceptable behaviour in the workplace.
The culture-change progress report comes at the halfway mark of the Department of Defence’s five-year program to tackle workplace abuse, and also reveals that many women working in the department haven’t been fooled by male bosses whose enthusiastic public words in support of cultural change don’t match their private actions.
The results of this employee survey — officially the Unacceptable Behaviour Surveys Comments Analysis report — identified trust and ownership as the two key areas that needed more attention for the final phases of the culture-change programs. Managers’ poor behaviour and attitudes were also frequently cited. The feedback was drawn from navy, army, air force and public service employees via an anonymous internal survey.
While many women appreciated the leadership-driven commitment to cultural change, others suggested male bosses undermined the efforts by not enforcing the new standard.
Former army chief David Morrison’s celebrated viral video asserting “the standard we walk past is the standard we set” was identified by respondents as one of the authentic demonstrations of leadership, having a positive impact both inside the department and the wider Australian community.
But the powerful message was easily undone in the eyes of some when words and actions were not aligned. Wrote one female public service employee:
“I was very impressed to hear [then] chief of army’s speech last year … it is therefore very disappointing to observe (and hear about) senior leaders including the [redacted] using unacceptable behaviour — including bullying, yelling, verbal abuse. Watching our senior leadership accept this behaviour demonstrates that I would not be in a position to challenge unacceptable [behaviour] against myself.”
Defence’s No. 2, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, who currently has carriage of the Pathway to Change culture-change program, was pulled up for his earlier performance in an interview, which had a subtle but lasting impact. Another female APS employee wrote:
“[Griggs] said all the right words, however his tone, manner and body language were quite disingenuous and at odds with his words.”
She added it had “… seriously detrimental effect on the credibility of his office when promoting … cultural reform programs”.
If not the most polished spokesperson, Griggs was responsible for the most successful of Defence’s culture change interventions, according to the anonymous employee feedback. That intervention, Next Generation Navy, was praised in many of the comments, and far more than equivalent programs: New Horizons (air force) and Pathway to Change (Defence-wide, with particular urgency for army).
Meanwhile, blame was apportioned in many directions, including the old guard who are happy to talk about values but didn’t do much to actually implement them over their careers, and new recruits for bringing in community values that aren’t aligned with Defence values. But perhaps the most frequent target for blame was managers. One female APS employee wrote:
“Managers seem to answer to no one and ANY attempt to confront or request fair treatment makes working life pure hell.”
A male APS employee complained of a lack of contemporary management practices:
“The best that can be said is that it operates on a divide-and-conquer method in dealing with staff.”
Instead of being the agents of change for carrying out the senior leadership’s culture-change direction, managers were repeatedly cited as the problem. Another female APS employee:
“There should be no place for yelling at staff in the Australian public service. Instead of blaming others for making them angry, managers who resort to this kind of bullying treatment (regardless of pay grade) should exercise some self-control and behave like functioning adults instead.”
Some commenters attributed the abuse to stress from the responsibility of the positions, others saw intentional blind spots from the very top. A male Army officer wrote:
“There are still clear cases where senior officers indulge in bullying and harassment of staff. Their superiors are often aware of this conduct yet excuse it as ‘just the way he/she is’ or because of the short term results they can achieve via this management style.”
Despite the leadership’s sustained effort to confront unfair and inappropriate treatment of women, some respondents, all men, explicitly or implicitly defended Defence’s culture.
“I haven’t seen more bullying in Defence [than] any other workplaces, it seems on par with the rest of the world,” one male APS employee wrote. While, an Army member took the “bad apples” approach, and didn’t put much stock in Morrison’s “standard we walk past” message:
“The behaviour of a minority of Defence members does not reflect the values of Defence as a whole, and in fact the offenders in these cases perform these unwholesome acts on their own terms as individuals.”