APS human resource managers receive fresh guidance to tackle misconduct

By on 07/02/2022 | Updated on 08/03/2022
Photo Andrea Piacquadio Pexels

Human resource managers throughout Australia’s federal government have been handed updated guidance on how to handle employee misconduct in a bid to firm up Australian Public Service (APS)’s ethical principles and code of conduct.

The guidance sent to APS agencies last week targeted workplace behaviours deemed incompatible with APS values, and in particular what this means for managers tasked with cracking down on misconduct.

It outlined the various approaches human resource managers can take to planning and executing assertive action involving public service employees suspected of falling foul of the APS code of conduct. This ranged from voicing initial concerns and reporting allegations to ultimately resolving complaints and disputes. It also explained the overarching legislative context to these avenues, reminding managers of the principles on which expectations are based.

In a statement, Peter Woolcott, Australian Public Service Commissioner (APSC) said: “The integrity and proper conduct of each APS employee is critical to maintaining public trust in the APS as an institution.”

He stressed the importance of showing how the APS as an employer “manages behaviour that falls short of expectations”.

Proportionate action to tackle behaviour

The guidance also urged managers to assess an employee’s behaviour based on the “seriousness and impact on public confidence in the APS” this could have.

According to Woolcott, all actions should seek “corrective, restorative, and proportionate” outcomes. Where an action taken towards an individual is deemed inappropriate or gratuitous, he said, agencies are encouraged to “repair workplace relationships” or otherwise “address systemic issues”. This could mean instituting cultural changes where incidents point to “systems, practices, or norms that do not support employees to meet their behavioural obligations”.

Complaints that are themselves largely emotive in tone or substance – referred to in the guidance as “frivolous or vexatious” complaints – should be highlighted to the complainant as potentially “inconsistent with the code”.

Under these provisions, staff will also be protected from reprisal for raising concerns over a potential breach of the code of conduct.

On this, the guidance noted: “There may be limits to the extent to which anonymous reports can be investigated and addressed, and agencies should explain this to anonymous complainants where possible. Agencies should carefully consider how an anonymous complaint can be considered or investigated, including the available relevant information and avenues of inquiry.”

“There may be limits to the extent to which anonymous reports can be investigated and addressed, and agencies should explain this to anonymous complainants where possible. Agencies should carefully consider how an anonymous complaint can be considered or investigated, including the available relevant information and avenues of inquiry,” the guidance said.

The latest guidance comes almost three years after a landmark review of APS carried out by Australian businessman David Thodey, which criticised the service’s “underinvestment in the APS’s people, capital and digital capability, [with] siloed approaches, rigid hierarchies and bureaucratic rules [creating] barriers to effective delivery”.

READ MORE: Australian Public Service prepares for “rapid phase of reform” as government responds to landmark review


The review’s recommendation that APS devise a legislated code of conduct for ministerial advisers was rebuffed by the government, which insisted Woolcott “has adequate powers to investigate and seek integrity information,” and would not be given additional powers in this area.

The latest guidance meanwhile outlines several roles which it suggests federal agencies allocate to carry out investigations into misconduct. These include a “breach decision-maker”, who would have the powers to determine whether the code has been broken, as well as a “sanction decision-maker”, “suspension decision-maker”, and supporting roles such as advocacy for the involved parties.

“Some agencies may have a pool of employees with experience or training in misconduct investigations and knowledge of administrative law principles,” it said

“There are a number of key roles in a misconduct process, and agencies need to consider whether it is appropriate for the same person to fulfil more than one.”

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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