People & Human Resources

ATO memo urges staff to dob in colleagues who take long lunches: Is this “the absolute worst” approach employers can take?

Emma Koehn /

Australian Taxation Office staff were sent a memo last year urging them to dob in colleagues who waste time spending too long reading the paper at work or taking long lunches, but one human resources expert says this approach is a recipe for disaster.

Freedom of Information documents obtained by the ABC reveal an internal ATO memo sent in December told staff they should be coming forward with names of colleagues who may be misreporting their hours worked because they take long lunch breaks or waste time in the office. The memo said such behaviour could amount to fraud.

“Maybe they just lose track of time, or are careless rather than acting deliberately. Maybe there are indeed reasonable explanations,” said the memo to staff.

“Or perhaps your suspicions are correct and they’re simply not recording their working hours appropriately.”

ATO management said reports will be looked into and if workers are not able to provide reasonable explanations, “action will be taken”. Such action could include sanctions under the tax office’s code of conduct, requirements to work off the hours that were claimed inappropriately, or the matter being placed on a worker’s record.

The ATO said staff would be offered anonymity when reporting their colleagues, but human resources expert and director of HR Staff n’ Stuff, Deborah Peppard, says this doesn’t make the policy okay in practice.

“I’m absolutely appalled by this idea,” Peppard says.

To her mind, there are two significant problems with asking staff to report on their colleagues’ poor behaviour.

“It completely and totally erodes all trust,” Peppard says.

“But it also shows an appalling lack of management, because it’s up to managers and leaders to encourage people to do the right thing.”

In a statement to SmartCompany, the ATO confirmed that tax office staff are encouraged to raise workplace concerns with management, including the “irregular patterns of work colleagues”.

“There are a variety of ways that employees can raise concerns with our internal fraud area. These concerns can be raised anonymously, should the employee choose to do so,” an ATO spokesperson said.

Managers must be on the lookout for poor performance

However, Peppard says that when it comes to managing the motivation levels of staff, “the absolute worst thing you can do is ask people to dob in their colleagues”.

“That’s really lazy management. If someone is doing drastically the wrong thing at work, then it’s up to managers to address that,” she says.

If a business or organisation does find that staff motivation is lacking, she suggests taking a step back to think about the overall culture of the workplace.

“If you have a good workplace culture, then people will generally want to do the right thing. Good leaders manage places where people want to get things done,” she says.

If employers are struggling to motivate workers who do seem to want to spend a lot of time away from their desks, Peppard says its up to them to question their own approach to leading.

Really the management has to be looking at themselves, and ask, ‘why is it that people aren’t working accurately?'” 

NOW READ: ATO in hot-desking stoush as unions warn planned setup could cause everyday chaos 

Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is SmartCompany's senior journalist.

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  • John Hutchinson

    I hope that every ATO Employee has recorded every minute of Overtime accurately that they have done, and that the ATO have compensated each one appropriately or this may be a breach of the Fair Work Act. I hope that the internal Memo urged everyone to do the right thing and report any overtime not reported so that they can be recorded and compensated correctly…I bet it didn’t.

  • jota6689

    The stupidity of the ATO knows no bounds

  • When I and a colleague were engaged as consultants by the ATO some time ago, my colleague pointed out that there was no place on the floor where we were working from which a clock could not be seen. Wherever a pillar or a roof beam might have obscured the view of one clock, another was provided.

    I thought that the ATO had moved away from clock watching towards empowerment and client centred design thinking, an approach that will only flourish where people feel able to take risks and step outside existing patterns of work. As a tax payer, it is rather depressing.

  • Todd Roberts

    It would be good if the ATO also circulated a memo about dobbing in colleagues helping siphon off $165 million from the ATO. Hopefully before it gets to $165 million next time!

  • BearerOfHarshWords

    Are we surprised the ATO engage in this kind of behaviour? We’re talking about one of the most corrupt government agencies around.

  • Jan Deane

    Aren’t managers supposed to manage staff comings and goings, performance etc. or are they too useless to do it effectively. Maybe managers are as bad as their sub-ordinates and no-one actually cares. I imagine many public service departments have a similar culture.

    • Yes, I had a stint as consultant in one such place, amazing to me the time-dodging and time-wasting lurks that went on. Yes, they are a reflection of poor supervision (what an old-fashioned idea). In a decent workplace culture, the colleagues would be straightening out the delinquents by example and a quiet word even before the in-charge stepped in. If this is not happening, yes, ask higher up why it is so. ATO memorandum is dopey idea.