Positive culture

In this section:

Organisational culture is the shared values and beliefs that guide how members of an organisation approach their work and interact with each other. It is expressed and manifested through the behaviours, customs and practices these members collectively display (VPSC, 2013). While human resource teams are often assumed to be the custodians of organisational culture, leaders, employees, the community and other stakeholders all have a role in shaping culture.

Culture, engagement and public trust

A functional culture is one with strong alignment between employees’ individual values and the values the organisation requires to succeed (VPSC, 2013). Survey data reveals values alignment is strong, with 87 per cent of public sector employees agreeing their personal values align with their organisation’s values, providing an indication cultures are generally positive.

Many authorities are moving beyond simple compliance with ethical codes, to developing a clear value proposition as a means of establishing culture. Sixty-one per cent of public authorities reported having established a distinct set of corporate values, separate to the Code of Conduct. Of the authorities that provided a sample of their values (outlined on the next page), a consistent theme was reflection of the core principles of public service—integrity, excellence, honesty and accountability. Values relating to social responsibility and community purpose were also common inclusions.

Strong values alignment is a factor that influences employee engagement. Beyond simply stating the values, 48 per cent of public sector agencies advise they assess the alignment of a candidate’s personal values and the agency’s in recruitment and selection processes. It appears agencies could use values alignment more proactively to gauge ‘organisational fit’ during pre-employment.

Survey data shows, and research supports, leaders and those earning higher salaries tend to have a more positive view of organisational culture than those earning less. This is because leaders have the ability to set the agenda, are generally first to receive crucial information and are in control of what information they communicate (VPSC, 2013). Leaders should not only rely on their own perceptions of culture, but use observation, judgement and intuition—along with tools such as employee surveys and performance management processes—to get a true sense of the authority’s culture.

Functional workplace cultures are those which invest in employees in the short and long term, in ways that go beyond salary and formal entitlements (Speiglman, 2017). Encouraging physical and mental wellbeing and enabling employees to achieve work/life balance is an important aspect of functional culture in modern workplaces. Data shows 70 per cent of employees agree their organisation is committed to health and wellbeing and 73 per cent agree their organisation supports them to achieve a suitable work/life balance.

Positive cultures are also likely to impact on employee retention. Authorities are more likely to retain employees where they visibly invest in their future through professional development. Complementary workplace cultures which aim to reconcile conflicts between employees’ professional and personal development, are those most likely to retain quality people (Speiglman, 2017). Seventy-three per cent of employees reported they have no plans to leave their organisation within the next two years.

When organisational cultures are dysfunctional, staff become disengaged, and serious underperformance becomes a risk (VPSC, 2013). When employees cannot see how their values align and how their work contributes to the organisation, it will most likely show as a lack of motivation and level of disengagement. Disengaged employees typically take up a disproportionate amount of leaders’ time in managing unacceptable behaviour which may include unscheduled absences, interpersonal conflict and lower productivity leads to presenteeism. Encouragingly, 92 per cent of public sector employees agree they understand how their work contributes to their organisation’s objectives.

Ultimately, an organisation with a dysfunctional culture is at a higher risk of failing in its role by neglecting the expectations of its stakeholders and those that rely on the service it provides (VPSC, 2013). This can also have serious consequences in relation to maintaining public trust and integrity, and implementing change.

Positive culture

‘Organisations with functional cultures generally have greater capacity to manage risk, uncertainty and ambiguity, have more positive organisational reputations and deliver services to a better standard.’

Victorian Public Service Commission, 2013, Organisational change: an ideas sourcebook for the Victorian public sector.

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Culture and integrity

Integrity is knitted into the fabric of public sector culture by public officers demonstrating integrity mindfully as individuals through decision making and business practices, and in interactions with others (Eccles, 2017).

Strong ethical leadership continues to be paramount in developing a high-integrity culture. Senior leaders who occupy positions of trust must set the tone from the top in demonstrating the highest standards of integrity and modelling integrity values. Survey results show 73 per cent of public sector employees agree their senior leaders lead by example in ethical behaviour, and 85 per cent agree their immediate supervisor demonstrates honesty and integrity. Research also suggests that integrity values can improve on the job performance, resulting in more timely services, and better treatment for the community (Nolan-Flecha, 2017).

A hallmark of a high-integrity culture is an environment where employees are encouraged, and feel comfortable, to report unethical behaviour. Seventy per cent of public sector employees agree their organisation encourages employees to report unethical behaviour, with 67 per cent saying they feel comfortable to report it. However, of those employees reporting strong perceptions of ethical culture, only around two-thirds who had witnessed unethical behaviour reported it.

Creating a culture that encourages ‘speaking up’ is not always easy to achieve. Organisations often struggle to create and embed ‘speaking up’ behaviour as the hallmark of a trust culture where raising issues is seen to benefit the whole organisation, and so is the natural thing to do (Ernst and Young, 2017). Authorities should clearly establish the business case for a culture that supports ‘speaking up’ as good for business and employees. There also needs to be further consideration of the consequences for internal reporters and how they are supported within the authority following reporting.

Poor culture can cause mediocrity to flourish, ‘good enough’ can become normalised, and lax processes and cutting corners become acceptable. Cultural dysfunction can lead to poor leadership decision-making. When the values of  mployees and leaders are not aligned with organisational values, it becomes more likely important information is missed or ignored (VPSC, 2013). In allowing a poor culture to prevail, authorities run the risk of failing in their role to meet the expectations of the community, and jeopardise public trust.

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Culture and change

Significant, sector-wide structural change, or more local change may be the motivation to reassess or refocus on organisational culture. An organisation’s culture should be assessed and considered on a daily basis. Even strong functional cultures can be eroded rapidly in times of significant change, and even more so when change is poorly managed.

Sustainable cultural change requires consistency, mindfulness and perseverance. One of the express objectives of the Government’s renewal agenda is to ‘change the culture of the public sector’. While this will encompass many aspects of public sector behaviour it is principally about improving the sector’s customer focus, becoming less risk averse and being more willing to be an early adopter of new ways of service delivery.

It could be argued a sector-wide culture of serving the public interest in an efficient way underpins what it means to serve the public, and is already strong. With a desire to change culture, the sector will need to be mindful of retaining a focus on the core principles of public service. It will also need to understand what the new culture is supposed to be while recognising that existing cultures are deeply embedded and may be difficult to change.

There are challenges in bringing organisations with different cultures together through structural change. This can result in significant dissonance and altered behaviour. For example, uncertainty around individuals’ employment status may lead to employees being less confident in speaking up, and a creeping culture of turning a blind eye to wrongdoing.

Employee insights - Conduct, integrity and reporting unethical behaviour
Ethical leadership

Ethical leadership

  • 87% agree their organisation is committed to and actively encourages ethical behaviour
  • 73% agree senior leaders in their organisation lead by example in ethical behaviour
  • 85% agree their immediate supervisor demonstrates honesty and integrity in the workplace
Reporting unethical behaviour

Reporting unethical behaviour

  • 70% agree their organisation encourages employees to report unethical behaviour
  • 67% feel comfortable to report unethical behaviour
  • 47% agree their organisation deals effectively with unethical behaviour
Workplace bullying

Workplace bullying

  • 58% say they are aware of their agency providing support for employees who have experienced workplace bullying
  • 10% say they have experienced bullying in the last 12 months

Our analysis

People with disability are more likely to disagree their organisation is committed to ethical behaviour, and are more likely to have witnessed unethical behaviour.

Aboriginal Australians and people with disability are more likely to have witnessed discrimination or harassment.

People with disability are more likely to feel they have been subjected to bullying, followed by Aboriginal Australians:

  • For people with disability it is mostly through teasing and practical jokes and deliberate changes to rosters and leave.
  • For Aboriginal Australians it is mostly through excluding or isolating from others and deliberate changes to rosters and leave.

Employees aged 24 and under and 65 and over are less likely to witness unethical behaviour.

Employees in senior roles (earning $150 000 and above) are most comfortable to report unethical behaviour.

Mid-level employees (earning $85 000 to $149 999) are less likely to agree their organisation deals effectively with unethical behaviour.

 For more data from the 2017 Employee perception survey, see the State of the sectors statistical bulletin 2017

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Page last updated 19 October 2017