In 2013, 17 per cent of staff were perceiving bullying within the organisation, slightly below the sector average. However, by 2016, this figure had dropped to 10 per cent. Staff engagement and job satisfaction rates were also up.

This case study is the story of how an organisation recovered from years of disruption by placing a strong focus on better and more open communication within the organisation. It also shows how desired changes in culture must be modelled from the top. It is based on interviews from the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Human Resources (HR) director and a range of staff.

The problem

The organisation’s culture had been negatively impacted after going through major upheaval over several years. The organisation has absorbed large numbers of staff from other organisations, had several changes of governance at the Board level, and had to very publicly deal with instances of serious misconduct. Service quality was poor and significant financial losses meant a large number of positions were made redundant. The current CEO joined the organisation in 2011 to find a poor workplace culture where staff felt stressed and under pressure. The CEO said the culture had driven ‘morale to a very low point’.

Staff said that stress levels contributed to some of the poor workplace cultures and bullying behaviours in the organisation, often bringing out the worst in managers. Staff recalled feeling undermined and unsupported. Some staff also reported a lack of consistency in processes. Workloads appeared to be unfairly distributed and some staff recall being constantly overlooked for training.

Staff said that the environment at the time was one where staff had very little trust in managers and vice versa. Some staff who reported bullying behaviours were made to feel like they were the problem. Others were not willing to raise concerns about bullying for fear that they could be targeted to exit the organisation.

The environment was conducive to bullying behaviours. The HR director joined the organisation in 2014 and said staff did not know how to respond effectively when they encountered poor and disrespectful behaviours. For example, there were instances where staff had lodged a grievance before attempting to speak to the relevant party to resolve the issue. Some of the issues raised were due to ineffectual communication between managers and their staff when managing the performance of the team.

There was also a fear of reprisals. If there was an issue related to work, staff did not report it as there was fear the messenger may be blamed. This meant minor problems were not addressed early and became major issues. The current CEO was hired to focus on customer engagement, but he soon realised he had to look internally first, and address a number of workplace culture issues.

Response and reflections

1 Every employee looking out for the organisation

The CEO recalled an incident where a substantial issue came to the surface which had a significant impact on clients. When debriefing with the senior technical team, they agreed the issue could have been avoided if it had been identified and shared earlier. In response, a risk register was created where staff were encouraged to list any issues that they thought had the potential to impact services or customers. The register had an immediate positive impact in that it meant issues could be triaged and delegated for action. More significantly, the register was a key step in establishing a culture where issues were openly discussed and shared. Since its creation, a large number of potential operational issues have been addressed early and there has been a significant improvement in performance.

2 Transparent and open communication during change

The CEO said there was a major push from senior leadership for better communication in the organisation. The executive leadership team actively engages with their teams to build an understanding of the vision and strategic objectives of the organisation. The CEO sends weekly email updates to staff on what is happening in the organisation, including information about restructures. He also established ‘Live Chats’ where staff could post questions to him directly and anonymously.

In a recent restructure, staff were provided information about the organisation’s cultural vision, processes, capability, and the rationale behind the restructure through different mechanisms. For example, after the initial announcement, the executive leadership team met regularly with teams to ensure views of staff beyond the leadership team and HR were considered.

3 The impact of strong leaders

The CEO said his leadership team had made a big impact on the organisation as collaboration is fostered in the team. The CEO said the senior leaders were constantly in each other’s offices and siloes were being broken down across the organisation. Leaders now do things that benefit the entire organisation, not just their area. This practice is trickling down to the rest of the organisation.

The organisation has run regular manager workshops on building staff capability, communication and performance.  A leadership program is also available for technical staff without management responsibilities with a focus on the importance of building connections in developing successful careers.

4 Dealing with difficult behaviours from staff and clients alike

The organisation has invested in training staff to manage difficult relationships with staff and clients. In the past, the organisation had many dissatisfied clients and frontline staff had to deal with this. In response to this issue, staff were trained on how to deal with challenging clients and were given resilience training. If frontline staff are exposed to poor behaviour from clients, the executive leadership team is quick to take it up with the client at a senior level. Staff were also trained on how to have difficult conversations with fellow workers and managers.

One major change made was to embed a HR member in the different areas across the organisation to support managers and monitor issues and workplace culture. The HR director said many managers had said they did not understand the impact of this change at first but it had been valuable to have a dedicated person to speak to about problems in their teams.

5 Taking strong action against poor workplace behaviour

The CEO said the organisation did not implement specific strategies to address bullying. However, he made it clear consistently and over time that poor behaviour would not be tolerated in the workplace.

The organisation had uncovered instances of misconduct, which weren’t directly about bullying. The CEO took swift action if he was made aware of any misconduct or evidence that individual employees were not acting appropriately. A number of staff were either dismissed or were given warnings.

The HR director said the culture and processes in the organisation now would mean bullying behaviours would be identified and addressed quickly. Performance management plans are much more developed and include key performance indicators. If bullying were to emerge again, the organisation is better prepared to have performance discussions, provide coaching, and monitor the issue. The HR director has an open-door policy and she and her team have helped staff resolve issues of perceived bullying or misconduct before the matter escalates.

6 Investing in staff

The HR director said that at one time, there was little investment in the growth of staff. When new projects were implemented, the organisation would hire new contractors rather than look to developing the required skills in-house. Now the organisation has a commitment to upskill current employees.

Current situation

The organisation is now seeking to engage new clients for the first time in several years and the organisation is growing in response to increased demands for services. Employee attrition has dropped from a high of 19 per cent, a few years ago, to 7 per cent. There is a sense of excitement in the organisation, and the CEO has promised staff he will walk the floor ringing the ‘new customer bell’ when this important milestone is reached.

Staff agreed that positive changes have come from the highest levels of the organisation.  The current CEO has brought stability and there is a clear vision about where the organisation is heading. Staff feel that their opinions matter and appreciate the CEO’s regular communications.

Despite this, some staff felt that certain areas of the organisation remain unchanged, suggesting there was still work to be done to improve the workplace culture across the board. Many of the issues about uneven distribution of work and lack of access to training still existed, and some felt that the positive actions of the CEO are yet to translate through to all middle managers.

Advice to others

1 Good behaviour starts from the top

The HR director said staff found that having a CEO who models positive values and behaviours and who was a good communicator has a positive impact on the organisation. Senior leaders now treat each other with respect, something that was not necessarily happening in the past.

2 ‘Communication, communication, communication!’

The HR director said that communication at all levels was the key to managing change and building a positive culture in general. A particular focus was making sure middle managers were all aligned with the executive team’s vision and what was expected from staff. These managers were critical to ensuring these messages trickled down to all staff.

3 Have patience

Changing a culture does not happen overnight. The CEO said that when he started implementing his new strategies, he did not see much change. However, the continued implementation of the change program and the positive ripples of this work is now spreading throughout the organisation.