The Pearce Report: the Good, the Bad, and the Downright Ugly
Victims of CSIRO (VoC) maintain that the manner in which the Pearce investigation was developed and undertaken was considerably flawed. However, we feel that it is also appropriate to commend and recognise the elements of the report which are well considered, factual and appropriately written.
“The Good” – Bullying is Confirmed to be Widespread and Facilitated by Official Intransigence at CSIRO
Most importantly, the report has uncovered 136 bullying complaints within the CSIRO and key failures of senior CSIRO officers in addressing the complaints adequately. This is what VoC have been stating all along and what the CSIRO has consistently refuted in both proactive meetings initiated by employees and public fora.
Deputy CEO Mike Whelan told the Senate last year that there was only one confirmed case of workplace bullying at CSIRO in the last three years. CSIRO CEO Megan Clark said that CSIRO “does not have a problem with bullying”. Such statements are now revealed to have been false and hopelessly out of touch. The fact is that bullying is occurring in the CSIRO, and in a statistically large number of occurrences.
A recurrent theme in the report that is also important to acknowledge, is its identification of key failures by CSIRO officers, particularly those in Human Resources positions, to respond appropriately to allegations of bullying and other elements of misconduct. In particular, the report points to the misuse of formal grievance procedures in allegations of misconduct where application of the CSIRO’s misconduct policies would be far more appropriate.
In fact, the report goes so far as to state that no grievance investigation conducted by the CSIRO relating to workplace bullying has resulted in misconduct proceedings against the accused. Given the CSIRO’s definition of workplace bullying as misconduct (and it being against the law in progressive states), this is also highly significant. No single individual within the organisation has, therefore, been disciplined for bullying – a ridiculous outcome that further illustrates the disingenuous nature of CSIRO’s processes and official response. CSIRO’s most senior officials denied for years that bullying was occurring and the organisation ensured that no one was even charged with bullying.
The overuse and misapplication of grievance procedures (presumably either because this channel is advantageous to CSIRO or because the organisation’s process is mismanaged) is particularly gruelling for victims of misconduct and focuses unfairly on the victim who reports such misconduct. In most cases where the victim of such misconduct is already under significant psychological strain, the effects of undertaking a long, adversarial grievance process are often debilitating. This, in many cases, leads to a considerably longer period of psychological rehabilitation and too often results in permanent psychological impairment. The victim is then typically subjected to counter allegations of poor performance (often a direct result of a sustained campaign of bullying, and should be anomalous when considered in the context of a previously unblemished work ethic).
We agree wholeheartedly with Professor Pearce’s conclusion that the focus of such investigations should be upon the alleged perpetrator and not the victim, as has occurred almost exclusively in the past.
“The Good” – A “Blame-the-Victim” Culture at CSIRO was Identified
Another important observation made by the investigation team is the apparent culture of “blaming the victim” (and by logical extension, protecting the perpetrator), which the investigator importantly concludes is largely evidenced in bullied employees’ significant mistrust of CSIRO Senior Managers and the employees’ reluctance to bring matters of misconduct to their attention. In investigating such complaints, an undue influence is applied, almost without fail, upon the victims’ inability or unwillingness to adapt to significant organisational change, therefore legitimising the unreasonable actions of the perpetrator and unreasonably placing the burden of proof back upon the victim, who historically has engaged in organisational change without hesitation. This is particularly notable in the context of the CSIRO’s perpetual state of restructure across parts of the organisation.
The investigator rightly concludes that the proximity of the parties in conflict to a more senior officer delegated ultimate responsibility for resolution of the complaint, often makes it inappropriate for the senior officer to participate in the process with complete objectivity.
This suggests the obvious: that such processes, particularly those relating to misconduct, should be relegated to a specific unit that is independent of the business unit in which the allegations arose.
In support of this view, the Investigator specifically references cases where a grievance or complaint has inappropriately been delegated to the perpetrator (head of division) for resolution.
We do not, however, accept that this should be an internal function of the CSIRO as proposed in the form of the Conduct Integrity Unit as the report proposes. We suggest this should more appropriately be an external body or professional mediation service organisation appointed by the Minister and should be completely separate of the day to day running of the organisation. The Whistleblower Committee and Staff Welfare Incident Management (SWIM) Teams are currently resourced by Senior CSIRO officers who have other operational responsibilities that may come into conflict with their ability to investigate impartially, and is therefore an unsuitable proposition.
“The Bad” – A Historical Analysis of Bullying at CSIRO was not Carried Out
Unfortunately, despite some excellent results achieved by the investigation team, it is our strong opinion that the investigation could have been conducted in a far more beneficial and effective manner. This is a conclusion with which Professor Pearce appears to wholeheartedly agree, however, for very different reasons to those that VoC perceive.
There is no evidence that the investigation team undertook any comprehensive historical analysis of workplace bullying or misconduct allegations previously captured by the CSIRO, nor did the investigation reference other pertinent information including compensation claims relating to workplace bullying or other psychosocially derived injuries. This is a key omission on the part of the investigator and places an unreasonable emphasis and reliance upon the provision of submissions by a restricted group of participants.
Professor Pearce has not provided any explanation for the omission of this particularly valuable body of information, which conversely formed a significant portion of the information requested by the team investigating abuses within the Australian Defence Forces in which Professor Pearce participated.
“The Bad” – The Report is Littered with CSIRO-Inspired Motherhood Statements
In general, there were a number of substantial detractions in both the format of the report and the material provided within it. The report is riddled with many unsubstantiated assertions that purport to be authoritative by inclusion, but yet have not undergone any articulated rigorous testing or examination.
The report also contains many flowery “motherhood” statements that appear to be lifted straight out of a CSIRO Human Resources aspirations document, rather than drilling into the defective HR practices identified by Professor Pearce himself within the organisation.
Commencing the investigation report with one such motherhood statement, is in our opinion, completely inappropriate in what is asserted to be an independent process:
I want to be clear that I, my management team and the Board are committed to providing a positive working environment where all forms of inappropriate behaviour—including discrimination, bullying, harassment, intimidation or threats—are absolutely not tolerated. It does not fit with our values or our culture. I know that stopping inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and the fear of it is a challenge. It involves both the complex interactions between people and the role the organisation takes to manage it at the case level and in systems and processes.
Dr Clark, CSIRO resolves to strengthen values and culture
Dr Clark has demonstrated most recently, in her failure to intervene in current workplace bullying allegations that have been referred directly to her, that she is in fact not prepared to take a strong stance on workplace bullying. Dr Clark, has also demonstrated, through her failure to discipline senior officers providing false and misleading testimony under oath on no less than 128 occasions in the matter of Williams and ComCare – AATA , that she is unwilling to commence misconduct proceedings, even when the reputation of the CSIRO is brought into public disrepute by its officers (an egregious contravention of the organisation’s code of conduct).
In fact, Dr Clark herself has been exposed for misleading the Senate Estimates Economics Committee on more than one occasion. How are we to trust such bold statements, with their seeming veracity reinforced by Professor Pearce, where the very person espousing them has herself been found to behave, on the Parliamentary Hansard record, in this manner?
Dr Clark carries personal managerial responsibility for all of the machinations embedded in the Pearce investigation including the exclusion of serious cases, the Phase 2 secrecy and then the public attacks by Pearce on the individuals who pointed out those deliberate manipulations. Nauseating public hypocrisy?
“The Ugly” – Some Victims are Attacked for Complaining About Bullying at CSIRO and the Process of Investigating It
We also feel strongly that the indulgence of Professor Dennis Pearce in personally attacking those critical of the investigation process, without explaining the fact that they were excluded from participation by his own Terms of Reference, strongly detracts from the professionalism and independence of the report and is completely inappropriate within the context of the investigation, particularly in view of the fact that Professor Pearce confirms the allegations of widespread bullying in CSIRO.
The restricted nature of the constitution and scope of Terms of Reference which the investigation team was required to operate, particularly the exclusion of allegations constituting criminal misconduct, created a substantial deterrent and barrier to participation, as many potential participants perceived little value in providing personal information to the investigation team where under the Terms of Reference, it was to be excluded for any consideration in Phase 2 of the investigation and therefore would not provide any resolution for the participant. This again is inconsistent with enabling and encouraging strong participation and the best possible sample group.
VoC estimated that up to 95% of our members would be excluded from participation in Phase 2 of the investigation as a result of time elapsed, criminal allegations, legal or tribunal proceedings or previously investigated complaints. Then there was also matter of the independence of the publication of the findings from phase 2 which are turned over to CSIRO exclusively.
In the investigation report, Professor Pearce makes reference to the poor quality of investigations conducted by the CSIRO, particularly by internal Human Resources officers into allegations of misconduct, and yet has actively excluded any detailed review of the manner in which these investigations were conducted. This in fact failed to ameliorate the very possibility of potentially improper investigation processes as described.
In essence, it is not unreasonable to propose that that Professor Pearce’s criticism of the critics of the investigation process is largely a result of his own failure in relying solely upon the submissions received, in a process that was unduly restrictive and unlikely to engage the largest possible sample group.
Many of Professor Pearce’s assertions relating to critics of the investigation process are also largely unfounded and incorrect, particularly those relating to VoC. Suggesting that key stakeholders have unduly attempted to obstruct the investigation by reasonably refusing to provide privileged or confidential information is really grasping at straws. Would the investigator consent to providing those submissions to stakeholders in the same context? We sincerely hope not.
Similarly, it is incongruous to compare raising legitimate public concerns about the independence of an investigation process with that of actively obstructing the process.
In the case of the VoC group, members were duly informed that, after examining the published Terms of Reference and receiving various advice, VoC were unable to support the investigation process, as it was felt that the majority of our members were procedurally excluded in a manner that had to have been considered and deliberate. There was also no guarantee that submitters would not be legally disadvantaged.
The decision of the investigator to amend the Terms of Reference shortly before the closing date for submissions supports the concerns raised in relation to the investigation process. Unfortunately the amendments were deficient in addressing the key concerns raised by the stakeholder groups, that central and highly relevant cases were excluded.
In adopting this position, the VoC clearly articulated to members that they should make their own decision as to whether or not to participate in the investigation process, taking into consideration their own personal circumstances (there is a record on the VoC website).
A number of our members subsequently made the decision to participate in the process, whereas many of our members made an informed decision not to participate.
We note also that Professor Pearce, in condemning those parties critical of the investigation, has failed to objectively address the merits of the criticisms. That he agreed to exclude a large number of the most serious cases for investigation also strongly detracts from the quality of the report and again questions the impartiality of the investigation process.
Conclusion – The Pearce Report Provided A Partisan View of Bullying at CSIRO
In conclusion, we strongly agree with Professor Pearce to the extent that the investigation had a far greater potential than has been realised in the stage 1 process, however, we feel that there is an issue of objectivity in this process.
Professor Pearce’s artificially contrived attacks on the credibility of those reasonably criticising deficiencies in the process have done little to reassure the public about the independence of this investigation, paid for by CSIRO.
Professor Pearce and HWL Ebsworth are to benefit from substantial fees for undertaking this investigation, whereas individual CSIRO staff subject to bullying, including members of VoC, depend on nothing more than the freely-given time and efforts of publicly-minded volunteers.
The community will ultimately decide who is the more objective: the multinational law firm paid by the organisation it is to investigate, or the very many CSIRO staff and ex-staff who wish to see a much loved public institution restored to its former status, one in which integrity and excellence in science are truly lived values.
VoC will continue to monitor the outcomes of the investigation, and to advocate for a workplace at CSIRO that is free of nefarious behaviour.
Victims of CSIRO