Failure to act on toxic culture results in death


Court body fined almost $380,000 for deadly work culture

Underwhelmingly, Court Services Victoria (CSV) has been convicted and fined $379,157 over a toxic workplace culture at the Coroners Court of Victoria that contributed to the suicide of one worker and numerous others taking stress leave. In October, 2023  the independent statutory body, which administers Victoria’s court system, was sentenced in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court  after earlier pleading guilty to a single charge of failing to provide and maintain a safe workplace.

CSV admitted it failed to conduct any adequate process to identify risks, and any adequate risk assessment of the risks to psychological health of employees at the Coroners Court.

“Everyone in an organisation has a role to play in creating a health and safe environment, but the development of a positive culture and appropriate risk control measure depends on leadership from the top”. Dr Narelle Beer – WorkSafe Executive Director of Health and Safety

” Leaders need to quickly identify leading indicators of toxic cultures and toxic leadership – reports coming from the very perpetrators puts us all at risk. get external independent reviews or find yourself at centre of storm you may never recover from.”  – Carolyn Grant, People Plus Science

A toxic culture

There are a number of red flags in the workplace which provide early indicators of toxic cultures (you may even see a webinar we held with the Governance Institute on Red flags in the Workplace) in this case there were a number of red flags. 

Workers had made complaints including:

  •  allegations of bullying
  • favouritism 
  • cronyism,
  • verbal abuse
  • derogatory comments
  • intimidation
  • invasions of privacy and
  • perceived threats to future progression.

In addition, engagement with employees and a risk assessment would have identified the following hazards:

  • exposure to traumatic materials,
  • role conflict,
  • high workloads and
  • high work demands,
  • poor workplace relationships and
  • inappropriate workplace behaviours.

Employee churn, absenteeism, psychological safety indicators, safety to report 

In addition, a number of workers took leave after reporting feelings of anxiety, PTSD, stress, fear and humiliation.  As board member and CEOs the excuses that we accept as opposed to seeking independent assessment and reviews will become critical. What employee with low levels of trust in a role, organisation or system will respond with honesty and openness to an internal survey or assessment?

What employee will willingly trust your internal team, to disclose and report issues if they know they have been ignored before?

So what are you missing with your lack of curiosity, due diligence and obligation?

Psychosocial Hazards and Consumers

Leaders do not just have an obligation to employees. The same psychosocial hazard assessments need to apply to consumers. In the health and aged care community the high rate of churn of carers and nurses creates a psychosocial hazard with consumers as continuity of care becomes a risk. 

Untrained staff and the provision of care or the environment provides a great hazard especially in terms of those of the Forgotten Generation who suffered institutional abuse in younger years. 

Financial stress as a result of poor and incompetent billing systems for those on budgets also creates a hazard to actual abuse from employees that are suffering from burnout and exhaustion due to poor staff rostering.

Event organisers serving alcohol need to be particularly on alert as the respect@work laws are enforced in December and exposure to poor behaviours at events is particularly concerning.

Associations who rely on antiquated constitutions and written codes of conduct with little accountability or “action” will be exposing the whole organisation to great risk if they fail to “act” and believe they are “hamstrung” by their constitutions and reluctant to act.

Organisations and associations relying on government funding or government projects need to be aware as scrutiny of suppliers and contractors and their response to psychosocial hazards and respect@work responses are part of winning a contract or tender.

What do you need to do as an employer?

 To prevent work-related mental health injuries, employers should:
  • Promote a positive workplace culture that encourages trust, respectful behaviours and quality communication.
  • Consult with employees, customers, suppliers, contractors when identifying and assessing any risks to their psychological health and determining the appropriate control measures.
  • Implement policies and procedures for reporting and responding to psychosocial hazards such as workplace trauma, bullying, interpersonal conflict, violence and aggression; and reviewing and updating risk controls following any incidents.
  • Regularly ask employees how they are, encourage them to discuss any work-related concerns and, where required, implement suitable support and controls.
  • Have systems in place for workforce planning and workload management to ensure that employees have sufficient resources and a realistic workload.
  • Develop skills for leaders through coaching, mentoring and training to improve the support of employees.
  • Seek and act on feedback from employees during any organisational change process.
  • Inform workers about their entitlements if they become unwell or unfit for work.
  • Provide appropriate and confidential channels to support workplace mental health and wellbeing, such as Employee Assistance Programs.
  •  Evaluate the success of programs implemented to see if they have any impact.

What do we do as a board, oversight committee?

If you are a board, an oversight committee, an advisory board then you have a large responsibility. 

1. Accept accountability – how many boards have done a psychosocial hazard assessment. How many have viewed that of their organisation. How many can identify high risk teams? Or identify the high risk, high frequency hazards? How many can say that their employees (at all levels) feel safe to report bad news?

2. Understand the legal and regulatory frameworks.

3. Get independent reviews of the psychological safety and psychosocial hazards within the organisation.

4. Look at ensuring that you are looking “lead” indicators within your organisation and not lagging indicators.

5.Culture is not a lead indicator – it is a lag indicator. Engagement is not a lead indicator it is a lag indicator.

6. What psychosocial risks are your customers exposed to as a result of your employee’s behaviour? Your inadequate processes and systems? Your lack of training.

7. What “essential” skills training have your leadership team being exposed to in the last 12months? What essential skills have you identified as being critical.

8. Have you tried and tested the processes and policies you say will “stand up”?

The good news is that if you can get the “people stuff” right, your reliance on governance, risk management and policies and procedures reduces. 

If as a board you think that cyber security, environment, financial risk, fraud, physical safety or innovation is the biggest concern – think again – all of these risks are driven by people. Performance is reliant on your people. Start there.

” As board members we can no longer put our heads in the sand and say “it’s an operational issue”. As CEOs we need to quickly gain independent reviews as the trust and faith in a toxic culture is already lost”.  Carolyn Grant

Interested in Learning More?

Book a briefing on psychological safety today. Mitigate your greatest risk and drive high performing, thriving teams.