Within two years, the organisation had transformed its culture; perceptions of bullying fell from 23 per cent in 2014 to 6 per cent in 2016.

This case study is the story of how one Victorian public sector body changed from a culture of low trust which allowed bullying behaviours to thrive to one which is positive and engaged. It is based on interviews with the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Human Resources (HR) director and staff from the organisation.

The problem

Organisation C went through a period of turmoil, including a series of major restructures, significant reduction in staff and numerous changes of CEO. The body was also performing poorly: it was struggling financially, underperforming against its corporate plan and not meeting expectations of its key stakeholders.

The senior leaders, successive CEOs and board members did not always share a common vision for the organisation. Staff were suffering because of so much change, about which they received little communication. Many were not sure if the organisation had a future, let alone if they would have a job in a new structure. During this period, staff reported that they experienced intimidation and bullying behaviours from senior members of the organisation, which included openly shouting at staff.

Some staff reported feeling physically ill coming into work. The organisation was losing staff through a restructure, so those who remained had to take on more work. This was a particularly stressful time for managers, who faced the brunt of bullying behaviours, and many sought counsel from colleagues. Leadership team meetings became dominated by the issues they were having with the perpetrators.

The catalyst

Senior managers within the organisation sought independent advice on what to do. The HR director started an independent investigation into bullying behaviours and the investigator met with individual staff. A report was presented to the then-CEO and the findings discussed with a Deputy Secretary from the department which oversees the organisation.

While under an interim CEO in 2014, a number of senior leaders, including some of the perpetrators, did not have their positions renewed and left the organisation. The current CEO started soon after.

Response and reflections

1 Dealing with bullying at senior levels is particularly difficult

Addressing bullying at the most senior levels of the organisation proved challenging. Staff were concerned about repercussions of being involved in the independent investigation, perceiving the perpetrators as powerful and well-connected.

The current CEO said it would have been very difficult, especially for junior staff, to discuss bullying – particularly if it came from very senior individuals.

To address this, the current CEO, together with the leadership team, created an environment where people were willing to talk about it. He made it clear to all staff that bullying at any level would not be tolerated and that everyone had the responsibility to report bullying behaviours.

The CEO commissioned sessions for all members of the organisation to help them recognise bullying behaviours and know what to do about it. These messages were regularly repeated in staff meetings. The CEO said constant reinforcement made the expectations clearer for everyone.

2 Putting organisational culture first

With the new CEO starting during a period of disarray, the need for immediate action was clear.

A workshop was scheduled with the leadership team to set a plan to rebuild the organisation as a centre of excellence. The output resulting from the workshop was the ‘plan-on-a-page’, a strategy document that provided clarity and transparency to the whole organisation about the priorities and objectives for the next twelve months.  Each division, in turn, mapped out a ‘plan-on-a-page’ aligned with the CEO’s plan, clearly stating its vision, core objectives and cultural expectations. One of the key priorities identified by the leadership group was prioritising cultural transformation, underpinned by employee engagement.

The CEO opened communications channels, sharing the organisation’s vision and objectives and reporting regularly on progress. The CEO believed that ‘trust is about communication’ and wanted to be open with staff about changes – even if staff didn’t agree with them. He replaced a culture of secrecy with one of openness and trust.

3 ‘Eat well, move more, live longer’ – focus on wellbeing and collaboration

A new ‘culture club’ supported a shift to a more positive work environment. The leadership team aimed for the club to be mainly driven by non-executive staff. Initiatives to improve culture included team-building exercises, peer-recognition programs and social fundraising events.

Other initiatives to improve staff wellbeing and culture included:

  • psychometric testing for all staff and training on how to work collaboratively with different personalities
  • change management training to help them deal with change
  • an annual survey that measured employees’ perceptions on how the leadership team was performing in a range of areas, such as the ability to transform vision into results
  • setting up a ‘mobile desk environment’ to allow staff to better manage their workloads flexibly.

The organisation also wanted to place a specific emphasis on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of staff. A survey was sent to all staff asking if the organisation was doing enough in this area and what improvements could be made. This led to a health and wellbeing program being developed. The program runs all year and focuses on healthy eating, moving more and promoting positive mental health. Some of the activities include healthy morning teas, weekly yoga classes and daily meditation sessions.

The CEO contends that improving work/life balance, decreasing stress, and building trust is pivotal to improving productivity.

Some staff advised that these initiatives felt tokenistic when they were first introduced, given trust levels were still low in the organisation. However, with the culture much improved in the organisation, many now engage with and appreciate the value of these initiatives.

4 Building stronger, cohesive leaders

The CEO determined that cultural change had to start from the top by building trust among the senior leaders. This had to start with leaders’ willingness to show vulnerability. Leaders are now more willing to share problems they face with each other and the leadership team works together to give support.

In addition, the CEO said it was important to create an environment that encourages different views. The CEO said that while he can be quite forthright with his opinions, he regularly calls upon leaders to share their thoughts and opinions, even if contradictory, as debating an issue leads to a better result.

The organisation also focused on setting up a program to develop its current and future leaders, which further supported the positive cultural shift. The HR director made a conscious decision to steer away from traditional short leadership courses that may look good on a resume but rarely result in changed workplace behaviours. As a result, a five-month program was developed to build leadership capabilities. This included training on self-awareness, having critical conversations and optimising the productivity of teams. Leadership staff were also able to receive coaching from their peers and superiors.

5 Good human resource leadership make a difference

Staff and the CEO said the appointment of a new human resources director had made a significant impact on the culture. She was the driver for a number of key initiatives, such as running bullying workshops.

Current situation

At the time of writing, the organisation was going through another substantial structural change. Some staff were concerned the culture of the organisation could change. However, the HR director said, as a whole, staff have been quite engaged in the change process. There has been a lot of communication around the purpose of the change and what it means for individuals.

The HR director said that a few years ago, most staff left because of poor workplace culture. Now they tend to leave on positive terms and due to career progression opportunities.

Advice to others

1 Make sure leaders are aligned

Leadership across the organisation needs to be aligned, cohesive and consistent in their behaviours. For example, performance must be assessed consistently with everyone following the same processes. This is vital if an organisation is going through change management; the purpose and focus must be clear across leadership levels.

2 Be clear that bullying will not be tolerated

Staff need to be aware that bullying will not be tolerated. Running training programs and reinforcing this in team meetings makes it clear that everyone has a responsibility to report this behaviour. The CEO said that an increase in staff who were willing to discuss or report behaviour that was perceived as bullying was a good thing, as it means staff are not being intimidated to stay silent.

3 Ensure new staff fit the culture

The CEO meets every prospective employee before they are hired to talk about the cultural environment and understand if the recruit will fit into the culture the organisation is trying to build. This has been critical in building the positive workplace culture of the organisation from the ground up.

4 Ensure ‘every voice has the same volume’

Organisation C is building a culture where everyone feels free to voice their opinions and not be intimidated by hierarchy.  The CEO walks the floor every Friday to build relationships with staff by having informal conversations. This investment in staff has been critical to breaking down hierarchical barriers and building trust. Ensuring staff feel they can approach any level of the hierarchy with issues means there is less chance of these matters festering. Staff agreed that they would not hesitate in approaching the CEO with issues of bullying or poor workplace behaviours.