Experts in organisational behaviour recognise the annual report as symbolic of an organisation’s culture, reflecting the enacted values of its leaders.  These reports also shape cultural norms, as employees see this very public expression of what their leaders recognise as important.  At the front of their latest report, CSIRO proudly showcases its ‘Values Compass’, which embraces core values of scientific excellence; trust and respect; scientific creativity; delivery on commitments; and health, safety and sustainability.  But does the content of the recent report actually reflect these espoused values of CSIRO?

CSIRO’s over-riding focus on scientific excellence, creativity and delivery on commitments is clear, with more than 75 pages devoted to reporting its performance achievements.  In contrast, the report dedicates just two pages to reporting on health and safety; three to environmental performance and three to diversity and inclusion and staff demographics.  Given this extreme imbalance in emphasis between reporting outcomes related to science delivery and those which demonstrate ethical corporate values, CSIRO’s poor performance with respect to gender equity and dealing appropriately with bullying complaints is perhaps unsurprising.

The 2013-14 report includes scant detail on gender equity initiatives or outcomes.  By comparison, universities and private companies supply very detailed information on the gender composition of their workforce to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency each year.  This includes comprehensive reporting on gender policies and strategies supporting women’s participation (eg recruitment and retention; pay equity; parental leave; flexible work; childcare provision; sex-based harassment and discrimination).  The majority of Federal Public Service Agencies report detailed statistics through the Australian Public Service Commission.  However, CSIRO takes advantage of its status as “trusted advisor” to government to avoid the reporting that other organisations are legally obliged to comply with.

So can annual reports reveal more than the facts and figures contained within them?  Research on the linguistic analyses of corporate communications has proliferated since the Enron scandal in the US.  A Stanford University1 study found a strong association of “extreme positive emotion words” with deception by CEOs.  Such language results from attempts to persuasively influence to mask poor performance.  The tone of the latest CSIRO report is remarkably Pollyannaish given CSIRO’s recent funding cuts; staff layoffs; low staff morale; on-going reputational impacts of inappropriate institutional responses to bullying complaints and gender inequity.   The CEO’s report sets the tenor with its somewhat unlikely assertion that she “will leave CSIRO knowing that it is well-positioned for the future“.  Dr Clark’s two-page spiel is dotted with superlatives and extravagant phrases such as “extraordinary by any measure”; “truly humbling”; “outstanding privilege”; “delivering profound impact”; and “outstanding talent”.  The contrast in approach with that of the former CEO, Geoff Garrett, is somewhat striking.  He adopts a measured tone in his summary reports, using phrases such as “a very good year”; “great science and innovative solutionsand significant and positive transformation”, lending confidence to his evaluation of organisational performance as realistic and spin-free.

The CSIRO’s propensity for spin is plainly revealed by the CEO’s reference to the recent Pearce investigation as an “investigation into staff welfare”.  The controversial investigation was originally extensively publicised as an investigation into bullying and unreasonable behaviour, and was clearly a reaction to persistent public accusations of the organisation’s failures in that regard.  The re-labelling to imply something more proactive and positive is remarkable, but consistent with CSIRO’s reluctance to publicly acknowledge that Prof Pearce wasn’t empowered to make findings of bullying or misconduct.

Dr Clark’s statement that “We are changing people’s lives” is especially poignant for those current and former employees of CSIRO affected by the organisation’s failure to respond appropriately to bullying and discrimination complaints. People’s lives have indeed been changed irrevocably by CSIRO.  Many have suffered significant and lasting impacts, including loss of career, adverse financial circumstances, damage to relationships and long-term psychological distress.  These impacts have been heightened by participation in the Pearce investigation, and their collective experiences give lie to Prof Pearce’s assertion that there are no problems with CSIRO’s culture.  Indeed, the lack of honest, balanced and accountable reporting in CSIRO’s annual report underscores the reality of an organisation out of touch with its values.

Perhaps it’s time for the government to recognise that Australia’s “trusted advisor” can no longer be trusted, and take steps to return it to the ethical and respected organisation it once was.

Judy Eastham is a consultant and researcher investigating gender equity in the workplace. She formerly worked as a scientist in industry, research and academic institutions.