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News: How to handle office politics in the public service

The latest annual State of the Service report from the Australian Public Service Commission found that 1 in 6 APS workers had been bullied or harassed in the 2015-2016 year, with the worst perpetrators being colleagues or senior personnel.

Verbal abuse was the most commonly reported form of harassment or bullying, followed closely by interference with work tasks such as withholding important information or deliberately undermining or sabotaging a person’s work efforts.

Bullying and harassment represent the more extreme sides of office politics, but how does anyone learn to handle the multitude of personalities – some more dominant others – as they go about their daily work?

James Judge, CEO of Australian Human Resource Professionals and an expert in workplace conflict resolution and employee engagement stresses that, “The term office politics is often talked about in a negative sense, but it can be both beneficial and harmful. When you have people coming together, working towards a common goal and sharing resources and a workspace, there is going to be human interaction. This means differences of opinion and varied communication styles.

These are then amplified by workplace hierarchies and power relationships – which combine to create ‘office politics’. It is only negative when people are using dishonest, harmful or disrespectful tactics at work. Left unchecked, this can lead to serious conflicts.”

James says that almost all workers are affected by office politics to some degree, however the higher up the chain it progresses the more it can impact the entire organisation. “There is an old saying that ‘the fish rots from the head’. When you have senior managers who engage in negative behaviours it often sets the tone for everyone.

One problem in some parts of the public service is people running teams who have under-developed people skills or low levels of emotional intelligence. Most organisations offer training courses, but it’s rare that the effectiveness of these courses is actually measured. Often sending someone on a course is easier than looking at other ways to effectively build capacity or address underlying poor behaviours or practices.”

So who is responsible for ensuring office politics remain positive?

“Everyone in a workplace has a responsibility over their own actions. Managers obviously need to play an additional role by setting the ground-rules and ensuring their teams stick to them. Organisations also need coherent values that are widely understood and applied (and seen to be applied) in decision making processes. By that I mean they aren’t just a set of words stuck to a notice board in the tea room or only mentioned in job interviews.

Some experts believe that unresolved conflict represents the largest reducible cost in many businesses, yet it remains largely unrecognised. Ensuring that unhealthy conflict is recognised and resolved at the earliest possible opportunity is something leaders and managers must be attuned to.”

So what are some strategies individuals can use to deal with office politics?

James quotes three he believes are essential…

1. Choose how you will respond

You might not be able to change the fact that your colleague/boss doesn’t have great people skills, but how you choose to respond is within your sphere of control.

2. Call bad behaviours when you see them

This doesn’t mean being unnecessarily confrontational, but raising objectionable behaviours with the person concerned at the right time, in a respectful way.

3. Discuss and normalise positive organisational values

If you’re a manager, look at your organisation’s values and discuss what they mean in terms of how you and your team behave. It’s amazing how often this is overlooked in the public service where a lot of people don’t seem to want to acknowledge or talk about conflict. There’s usually a huge set of people-related policies and procedures that sit on the shelf or intranet, and leaders and managers think ‘Tick, we’ve done that bit!’ Then they expect everyone to read and comply with them and seem genuinely perplexed when it doesn’t happen.

And what to do if office politics turn negative?

“If you’re the victim of bullying then you should definitely familiarise yourself with the people-related policies and procedures in your organisation such as grievance policies, codes of conduct, equity and diversity frameworks and protocols, etc,” says James.

“There are also often separate policies covering bullying and harassment. Industrial instruments like enterprise bargains also contain provisions addressing these issues.

It’s often best to try and resolve the problem quickly and at the lowest level possible but people don’t always have the confidence to do this and there may be significant power imbalances at play. In this case you need to find someone to talk to. There are often designated contact officers within public sector organisations who can be confidentially approached. Your immediate supervisor would also be someone to approach, unless they are the alleged perpetrator, which should be covered in the policy (where a separate contact is often specified).

Good advice is essential and the Fair Work Commission has an anti-bullying jurisdiction so they can help, as could your union or even an employment law specialist if you have deep pockets and you can’t get help quickly elsewhere. Human Resources might also be able to help but may not want to get involved unless a formal complaint is made.

Another thing to do is to keep a record of what happened including when and who was present. It’s very important later if things escalate to be able to give specific details of the actions or omissions that might constitute bullying behaviours.”

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