Applying APS Values: Relationships in the workplace

In February 2016 the APS Commission released a guide APS Values and Code of Conduct in Practice.

The guide is structured around the three professional relationships that are a central part of work in the public service:

  • relationships with the Government and the Parliament;
    with the public; and
  • with public service colleagues.

This article looks at key terms to understand and how information from this guide is relevant to your application and interview responses about upholding the Values and exemplifying professionalism and integrity.

Keep in mind that while the guide is structured around three relationships, the material is interrelated.

What are workplace relationships?

The guide is clear about what these relate to. ‘Workplace relationships cover the employer-employee work relationship and working with colleagues.’ [3.1.2] While some colleagues may also be considered clients and stakeholders, the focus here is on teamwork, collaboration, and interpersonal skills [such as respect, courtesy, professionalism]. These elements are grounded in the APS Values.

Understand the authority of managers

Much angst can occur in the workplace because people don’t fully understand the authority of a manager. If a person doesn’t like a manager’s directions they can slide into considering this behaviour as bullying or harassment.

The guide states: ‘Employees are required to follow directions that are both lawful and reasonable and given by someone with authority to do so.’ [3.3.2]

‘A direction needs to contain the language of command, and specify what actions should and/or should not be taken.’ [3.3.4]

Unacceptable behaviour

Employees need to understand both their responsibilities and the terminology, particularly respect, harassment, bullying, and discrimination.

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 requires employees to manage risks to health and safety, including workplace bullying. The Code requires treating everyone with respect and courtesy, and without harassment.’ [3.4.2, 3.4.3]

‘Workplace harassment entails offensive, belittling or threatening behaviour directed at an individual or group of employees. Such behaviour is unwelcome, unsolicited, usually unreciprocated and usually, but no always, repeated. Reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable way is not workplace harassment.’ [3.4.5] Managers need to be very clear about what is a legitimate exercise of their authority and what is harassment.

Behaviours may not in themselves be harassment, such as:

  • ‘Expressing differences of opinion
  • Making a complaint about a manager’s or other employee’s conduct, if the complaint is made in a proper and reasonable way
  • Performance management, if it is conducted in a reasonable manner.’ [3.4.12]

Some forms of harassment may also be workplace bullying. ‘Bullying at work, as defined in the Fair Work Act 2009, occurs when a person or a group of people repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards a worker or a group of workers at work, and the behaviour creates a risk of health and safety.  Bullying does not include reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.’ [3.4.8]

According to Safework Australia’s publication on bullying, examples of reasonable management action include but are not limited to:

  • ‘setting reasonable performance goals, standards and deadlines
  • rostering and allocating working hours where the requirements are reasonable
  • transferring a worker for operational reasons
  • deciding not to select a worker for promotion where a reasonable process is followed
  • informing a worker about unsatisfactory work performance in an honest, fair and constructive way
  • informing a worker about inappropriate behaviour in an objective and confidential way
  • implementing organisational changes or restructuring
  • taking disciplinary action, including suspension or terminating employment. ‘

What this means for managers and employees is that they:

  • Understand a manager’s authority and what actions are part of a manager’s responsibilities.
  • Are clear on the boundaries around what is harassment and bullying and what is not.

When preparing for a manager role, your experience may need to cover some of the above list to show that you have engaged in a range of manager behaviours.

If you are considering applying for a promotion to a manager role you will need to be convinced that you are prepared to take on these behaviours, some of which can be unpleasant.

Another boundary to understand is the difference between harassment and discrimination, two terms that can be bandied around inaccurately.

‘Some forms of harassment may also be discrimination. Examples are telling insulting jokes about particular racial groups, sending explicit or sexually suggestive emails or text messages.’ [3.4.13]

Discrimination occurs when someone is treated less favourably than others because they have a particular characteristic or belong to a particular group of people. Everyone discriminates between different categories. For example, I might discriminate in favour of a salad for lunch and discriminate against [i.e. not buy] a serve of chips. This behaviour doesn’t warrant accusations of discrimination, as the term has specific meaning under the act.

The guide lists what employees may need to do in order to foster diversity in the workplace:

  • ‘develop the work skills and abilities of others to help them reach their full potential, for example through training and support mechanisms such as reasonable adjustment
  • recognise and value diverse skills, cultural values and backgrounds of people in the workplace
  • encourage others to celebrate diversity
  • implement workplace structures, systems and procedures to balance work and personal responsibilities.’ [3.5.13]

A person may fail to act with respect and courtesy while not engaging in harassment. ‘For example yelling at others, displaying contempt, ignoring those who should be involved or considered.’ [3.4.15]

Workplace conflict

Questions can arise at interview about workplace conflict. Some conflict may relate to members of the public, which is treated in the guide separately from conflict with colleagues. Workplace conflict is about differences of opinion and disagreements. These behaviours are not bullying.

Online communication

Employees need to follow policies regarding internet and email use. Online communication is an official record, may be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act 1982.

Conduct after hours

Some elements of the Code apply to behaviours ‘in connections with employment’ while others apply ‘at all times’. Employees are required to comply with the Code when engaged in activities outside work hours and away from the workplace where there is some connection with their APS employment. Examples are work-related travel and training. Making public comment is also relevant here, This links to the section in the guide on Employees as citizens.


The sections on recruitment and promotion are worth reading. Key points for applicants are:

  • Employees who are applicants for recruitment or promotion must ensure that the information they provide is complete and accurate. [3.5.25] This doesn’t mean you have to list all your experience in a resume. It refers to the possibility of disclosure of information that could indicate a heightened integrity risk.
  • You can assist a colleague in preparing for a selection process, such as proofreading an application or practicing interview techniques. You may not write the application for them.
  • Referees must be honest and behave with integrity, including providing adverse information about an applicant. Good practice includes a referee alerting the applicant to any adverse comment. [If there have been concerns about performance, this should have already been raised with the employee. Referee reports are not a backhanded form of feedback.]
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.