Executive summary

A safe and respectful New Zealand Defence Force: First monitoring report

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) launched Operation Respect in 2016 in response to three separate reviews that had identified harmful sexual behaviour in the armed forces.1 Operation Respect aimed to prevent harmful behaviour from occurring and ensure that, when it did happen, there were systems and processes to deal with it properly.

The Office of the Auditor-General has committed to assessing how well NZDF is progressing towards achieving Operation Respect’s aims of eliminating harmful behaviour and creating a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment for all NZDF personnel.

Our work has two main components. We will perform regular performance audits to determine how effectively NZDF is implementing Operation Respect. Our first performance audit focuses on how well NZDF has reset Operation Respect and whether it has been designed and set up effectively to achieve its aims. We present our audit findings in a separate report.2

We will also carry out regular monitoring to assess the impact of the actions NZDF takes and, over time, whether they are achieving positive outcomes. This report sets out our initial findings from that monitoring. It is the first report in what will be a series and establishes a baseline for measuring NZDF’s progress.

Measuring change

We have developed an outcomes measurement framework that will enable us to assess NZDF’s progress towards five outcomes. We intend to report against this framework about every two years. This monitoring report presents our initial assessment against each of the five outcomes.

The five outcomes are the following:

  • NZDF personnel feel they can do their jobs in a safe and respectful environment free from harmful behaviour.
  • Leaders create an environment where what constitutes harmful behaviour is understood and not tolerated.
  • NZDF personnel work in environments where harmful behaviour can be raised and reported, then dealt with safely and fairly.
  • NZDF personnel can access appropriate support they need to recover and those in the organisation providing support have the capability and the capacity to do so.
  • NZDF personnel have a shared understanding of the purpose and value of a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment.

In our report, harmful behaviour includes both harmful sexual behaviour and discrimination, harassment, and bullying. Harmful sexual behaviour includes unwanted sexual activity and inappropriate sexual behaviour.3

This report brings together the qualitative and quantitative data we collected between September 2021 and April 2022.

The main quantitative method we have used is a survey offered to all NZDF personnel (regular forces and civilians).4 The main qualitative method we have used is a series of in-depth interviews with a cohort of 126 NZDF personnel.

Our overall assessment

NZDF is a unique organisation. Uniformed personnel are trained to work in difficult and sometimes dangerous environments, and to use lethal force. Leaders need to build mentally and physically resilient soldiers, sailors, and aviators who can work together and succeed in these environments. Leaders need to know that personnel will follow commands.

The environments that personnel work in are not always safe. NZDF has a duty to ensure that this is not exacerbated by personnel harming each other. NZDF also has a duty to respond appropriately when harm occurs.

If personnel experience harmful behaviour, it undermines their trust in leaders, peers, and the success of operations. Building a shared understanding of what makes a safe environment and what is and is not appropriate behaviour is an important part of preventing harm. NZDF needs to focus on this if it is to achieve the aims of Operation Respect.

Although the focus of this report is on the prevalence of harmful behaviour and the experience of how it is addressed, most of the people we spoke with felt positively about NZDF and their place in it. As well as reporting some of the negative aspects of people’s experience working in NZDF, this report highlights many positive experiences personnel have.

Our overall assessment is that most NZDF personnel work in environments that are safe from harm and trust that NZDF will properly deal with harmful behaviour.5

The findings set out in this report indicate that safe and inclusive environments are those that have:

  • shared behavioural expectations that leaders set out and model;
  • accessible leaders who encourage the contributions of all people; and
  • leaders who create an environment where people feel comfortable raising issues and who quickly address harmful behaviour when it occurs.

However, a small proportion of NZDF personnel do not have a safe working environment and experience harmful behaviour. Where such behaviour occurs, it creates distress for affected individuals and has wider impacts on the organisation.

Personnel do not yet have a shared understanding of what constitutes harmful behaviour and how having a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment will help achieve the organisation’s aims. This makes it harder for people to notice harmful behaviour, raise concerns, and have those concerns taken seriously. The burden of identifying harmful behaviour and speaking up when it occurs still falls disproportionately on those directly affected by it.

Although people from all demographics experience harmful behaviour, women experience it more than men. Women also have less trust that NZDF will deal with harmful behaviour appropriately, often because they have seen situations where NZDF has not done so.

NZDF provides a range of support services for those affected by harmful behaviour. When people access these services, they often feel well supported. However, not all people who need this support access it. Those who experience harmful behaviour often do not feel safe reporting it or have had negative experiences doing so. This means NZDF has not yet created an environment where personnel feel they can raise issues and report harmful behaviour safely.

Our overall assessment is informed by our findings against each outcome, which we summarise below.

Prevalence of harmful behaviour

Most personnel work in environments where they feel safe and respected, but harmful behaviour still occurs

Most personnel feel safe and respected. The majority of personnel (93.4%) who responded to our survey felt safe from inappropriate and harmful sexual behaviour in the workplace.6 Personnel we spoke to generally felt that, in recent years, there had been a change in what behaviours were seen as appropriate. Physical environments had also been made safer.

However, harmful behaviour still occurred in parts of NZDF and some personnel told us about a range of harmful behaviour that undermined their feelings of safety and inclusion:

  • Unwanted sexual activity: 78 personnel (1.3%) who responded to our survey indicated that they had experienced unwanted sexual activity in the last 12 months.7 Women were more likely to experience this behaviour than men (3.1% of women compared to 0.6% of men). Rates were 4.8% for uniformed women and 7.2% for junior uniformed women.
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviour: 5.5% of personnel who responded to our survey had experienced inappropriate sexual behaviour in the last 12 months.8 Women were more likely to experience this behaviour than men (13.4% for women compared to 2.4% for men), and rates were higher for junior uniformed women (24.6%).
  • Bullying, harassment, and discrimination: 12.6% of personnel who responded to our survey had experienced bullying, harassment, and discrimination in the last 12 months. Civilian personnel were more likely to experience these behaviours than uniformed personnel (17.6% for civilian personnel and 10.7% for uniformed personnel). Rates were higher for women than men (19.7% for women and 9.6% for men).

Junior uniformed women are most affected by harmful sexual behaviour

The risk of experiencing harmful behaviour varies by gender, rank, and sexual orientation. Our survey found that women experienced higher rates of all types of harmful behaviour than men. A person’s position in NZDF also affected the behaviour they experienced.

Junior uniformed women experienced consistently higher rates of most harmful behaviour types. The different environments junior non-commissioned officers9 (NCOs) work in compared to junior officers appear to create different risks. Junior women NCOs were more likely to experience unwanted sexual activity (8.7%), and junior women officers were more likely to experience inappropriate sexual behaviour (28.2%).

Senior uniformed women experienced lower rates of harmful sexual behaviour than junior uniformed women but experienced higher rates of bullying, harassment, and discrimination (24.3% compared to 19.0% for junior uniformed women).

Even though women are more likely to experience harmful behaviour, men also experience all forms of harmful behaviour, including unwanted sexual activity.

Civilians experience more bullying, harassment, and discrimination

Civilian personnel were disproportionately affected by bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Civilian women experienced less harmful sexual behaviour than uniformed women but more bullying, harassment, and discrimination (21.7%) than most groups of uniformed women. Some civilian personnel, especially women, felt that NZDF took them less seriously than uniformed personnel.

Aspects of the military environment can create greater risks of harmful sexual behaviour occurring

Uniformed women experienced higher rates of unwanted sexual activity and inappropriate sexual behaviour than civilian women. Aspects of the environment that military personnel work in create greater risks; these include male dominated workplaces, blurred boundaries between work and social life, and hierarchal power structures that concentrate power in the hands of a few.

Team cohesion norms can create risks for harmful behaviour

Strong team cohesion norms appeared to create risks for harmful behaviours occurring. It was common for people we interviewed to feel that behaviour was acceptable as long as others were not visibly offended by it. In some environments, people felt that they must accept harmful behaviour to fit in, and this contributed to normalising that behaviour.

We heard that strong leadership and setting clear behavioural expectations can mitigate these risks.

Raising, reporting, and responding to harmful behaviour

A safe, respectful, and inclusive environment is one where people can raise concerns and trust that they will be acted on appropriately. Organisations need to create mechanisms that enable this.10

Getting this right is difficult. However, it is fundamental to supporting people who are affected by harmful behaviour and preventing further harm.

Most NZDF personnel understand how to raise and report harmful behaviour

NZDF has a range of formal and informal ways for raising issues and reporting harmful behaviour. Most NZDF personnel understand how to do this. However, the avenues for reporting unwanted sexual activity are clearer than those for reporting inappropriate sexual behaviour or bullying, harassment, and discrimination.

NZDF has not yet created an environment where personnel feel safe to raise and report harmful behaviour

Most people felt that they worked in environments where it was safe to raise and report harmful behaviour. In our survey:

  • 82.9% of respondents said that they would feel safe reporting inappropriate and harmful sexual behaviour, irrespective of the rank of the person engaging in the harmful behaviour; and
  • 78.1% of respondents said that they would feel safe reporting bullying, harassment, and discrimination.

Although most people said that they felt safe raising and reporting harmful behaviour, most incidents of harmful behaviour were not reported to someone in authority. Personnel who experienced harmful behaviour often did not feel that their work environment made it easy to raise or report harmful behaviour.

Common barriers personnel identified to speaking up about harmful behaviour were a fear of repercussions and lack of trust that anything would happen if they reported it. These barriers were most pronounced when senior personnel engaged in the harmful behaviour. The control that senior personnel had over a person’s career, and a lack of visible consequences for those who engaged in harmful behaviour also made personnel who had experienced it reluctant to report.

We heard that a lack of trust in reporting systems was often the result of personnel feeling that NZDF has not dealt with harmful behaviour properly in the past. Some personnel had seen various forms of harmful behaviour misunderstood, ignored, or diminished. As a result, they did not trust that complaints they raised would be dealt with adequately.

There is low satisfaction with how harmful behaviour is dealt with after it is raised and reported

Personnel were satisfied after they raised or reported harmful behaviour if they could access support, get a resolution through the right avenue, and observe a change of behaviour as a result. This occurred for some personnel. However, personnel who experienced harmful behaviour often had low satisfaction with how it was dealt with, which affected their trust in reporting.

Personnel who experienced harmful behaviour were often dissatisfied with how leaders responded to it when it was reported to them. In our survey:

  • Slightly more personnel reported being dissatisfied than satisfied with the response from the person in authority after reporting unwanted sexual activity.
  • Only 39.1% of survey respondents were very satisfied or satisfied with the response from the person in authority after reporting inappropriate sexual behaviour.
  • Only 24.3% of survey respondents were very satisfied or satisfied with the response from the person in authority after reporting bullying, harassment and discrimination.

There was a perception that leaders did not always understand that these behaviours are harmful, and did not always act on them appropriately.

Personnel often described negative experiences with the complaints and disciplinary systems. These processes can be lengthy, and personnel often felt that they were not adequately kept up to date about what to expect or the progress of their case.

Personnel also need to see behaviour change. However, those we talked to said that this did not often happen, even when the matter had been through the complaints and disciplinary processes. This contributed to a sense that the consequences were not adequate and undermined trust in the system.

Personnel who had experienced harmful behaviour were not always clear about what the expected actions or consequences for different behaviours should be. A lack of transparency contributed to perceptions that NZDF did not deal with harmful behaviour fairly.

Availability of and access to appropriate support

NZDF needs to provide personnel who have experienced harmful behaviour with the right support. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to providing support. Each person will have distinct needs. When personnel do access support, they often see it as effective. However, not all personnel who need support access it.

There is a range of support services available to NZDF personnel

Personnel, particularly those who experience harmful sexual behaviour, have access to a good range of support options. Although there was a high level of awareness of the main support services available, personnel did not always understand the specifics of the support available or how to access confidential support.

It was also less clear what support pathways were available for people who experienced bullying, harassment, and discrimination and whether their needs were met.

There are barriers to personnel accessing support services

Although a range of support options are available, personnel do not always access support when they need it. For example, only 24% of survey respondents who reported experiencing unwanted sexual activity also said they accessed support from a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Advisor (SAPRA).11

There might be several reasons for this. When support services were more visible, personnel also felt they were more accessible and trusted. However, some felt that the high workload of some SAPRAs and social workers on camps and bases made accessing this support more difficult.

Personnel do not always want to report what they have experienced to their chain of command. There is a range of alternative and confidential options personnel can access, including outside NZDF. However, not all personnel understood the full range of options available.

Personnel who had seen leaders not take confidentiality seriously were less likely to trust the support available. They could also feel ongoing stigma about seeking support and feared that accessing it would have negative effects on their careers.

Personnel who access support are often satisfied with it

Personnel who had accessed specialist support services often felt that the right support avenues were available, especially for dealing with instances of harmful sexual behaviour. For example, 86.6% of those who had received support to deal with inappropriate sexual behaviour were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with that support.

Summary trial and court martial processes are difficult for personnel who have experienced harmful behaviour. Being able to access specialist support services and being well-supported by command helped lessen the stress. We heard that SAPRAs provided personnel with support through the summary trial or court martial process and ensured that they had access to other types of support as needed. Personnel also told us they valued the support from social workers, chaplains, and psychologists.

The role of leadership

Leaders set the tone for the camps, bases, and units that they lead. When personnel work in safe, respectful, and inclusive environments, good leadership is generally an important factor.

Although leaders often model appropriate behaviour, we heard they were less equipped to implement activities that prevent harmful behaviour from occurring or to help people to feel safe to raise and report it.

Most leaders model appropriate behaviour

Most personnel told us they felt that harmful behaviour was not tolerated in their work environments. For example, 90.6% of survey respondents felt that their immediate supervisors modelled appropriate behaviour. However, we also heard that some leaders engaged in inappropriate behaviours or did not act on it when they saw it occur. When this happened, it undermined trust.

Leaders do not always set clear behavioural expectations needed to prevent harmful behaviour

Although leaders often modelled positive behaviour, there was less focus on setting clear behavioural expectations, identifying issues in their units that needed addressing, or implementing prevention activities. They were more likely to focus on reacting after events had occurred.

Some leaders felt they were well equipped to implement activities to prevent harmful behaviour. Others wanted to, but they were often not clear about what prevention activities should look like and what they needed to do. We heard that current training did not adequately prepare all leaders to lead or support activities to prevent harmful behaviour.

Specialist support staff, such as SAPRAs and social workers, can assist leaders with prevention. Although they have the capability, we heard they do not always have enough capacity to provide regular support. Leaders and specialist support staff need to work together to implement prevention activities, but the degree to which SAPRAs were involved varied across NZDF.

Leaders are not always following up on reports of harmful behaviour

Power is not evenly distributed in NZDF, and this can make speaking up harder for some people than others. For NZDF to create an environment where incidents of harmful behaviour can be identified, raised, and addressed, personnel need to trust that their leaders will respond to harmful behaviour appropriately.

The extent that NZDF personnel trusted that leaders would respond appropriately to harmful behaviour was generally high, especially for their “1-ups” and “2-ups”.12 Most survey respondents (84.3%) trusted their immediate supervisors to effectively deal with harmful behaviour.

However, some personnel who had experienced harmful behaviour said that those in authority did not always act when it was reported. This affected their trust in leaders. Our survey found that those in authority acted on most reports of unwanted sexual activity, but they acted on reports of inappropriate sexual behaviour and bullying, harassment, and discrimination less often. Only 62.3% of instances of inappropriate sexual behaviour were followed up when reported to someone in authority, and only 51.4% of reported instances of bullying, harassment, and discrimination were followed up when reported to someone in authority.

Leaders need to actively create a work environment where personnel can easily and safely report information about harmful behaviour. To help achieve this, leaders need to be accessible, demonstrate that they are trying to understand what personnel are experiencing, and create safe forums where issues can be raised.

The extent that this was happening varied. This means responsibility for raising or reporting incidents of harmful behaviour still primarily falls on those directly affected by it.

Leaders need more guidance and specialist support staff need more capacity to support people affected by harmful behaviour

The process of going through the summary trial or court martial process is difficult for personnel who have experienced harmful behaviour. The right type of assistance from specialist support services and leaders can help lessen negative impacts.

Leaders generally felt equipped to respond to, and support people affected by, harmful behaviour. However, there were areas where leaders felt they needed more guidance to properly support both the victim/survivor and accused. For example, guidance on how to ensure that there was appropriate separation between the person who had reported experiencing the harmful behaviour and the person accused of it, while a case was going through formal processes.

It was felt that, in some locations, specialist support staff (including SAPRAs and social workers) needed more capacity to adequately respond to harmful behaviour, support people affected by it, and support leaders with prevention activities.

Shared understanding of a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment

A shared understanding of what constitutes harmful behaviour is critical to reducing it. NZDF personnel also need to have a shared understanding of the value of a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment, including how this enhances the ability of the organisation to achieve its aims.

Although personnel often saw Operation Respect as necessary to reduce sexual harm, there is not yet a shared understanding of why having a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment is core to NZDF’s operational effectiveness.

Personnel do not have a shared understanding of what behaviours are harmful

There is a shared understanding of what constitutes unwanted sexual activity. However, there is not a shared understanding of what constitutes inappropriate sexual behaviour or bullying, harassment, and discrimination.

Operation Respect is not yet embedded in people’s day-to-day working lives

Operation Respect has high name recognition in NZDF. Almost two-thirds (64.3%) of personnel told us that Operation Respect was visible in their workplace to a great extent or some extent in the 12 months before we collected our data.13 However, some saw it as a compliance exercise.

When leaders prioritise Operation Respect and implement activities designed to reduce harmful behaviour, it sends a message that harmful behaviour is not tolerated. However, there was not enough of this happening. Operation Respect is not yet embedded into people’s day-to-day working lives.

Operation Respect is still not widely seen as core to operational effectiveness

Personnel we spoke to believed that Operation Respect had been effective in reducing harmful sexual behaviour in the workplace to some degree. Most survey respondents (81.5%) reported that they felt that it was very effective or effective.

Most people still felt Operation Respect is needed. However, preventing harmful behaviour was still not seen as something that all personnel felt collectively responsible for. Operation Respect is still not widely understood as being core to operational effectiveness.

Looking ahead

Most personnel described a high level of commitment to NZDF and greatly value what the organisation provides. This view often persisted even after personnel had experienced harmful behaviour.

Many people we spoke to worked hard to ensure that NZDF was a place that was safe for all to work in. Through our work, we saw many examples of what a respectful and inclusive environment could look like. In our next monitoring report, we hope to see that more people can work in environments such as these.

We would like to thank all of those in NZDF who contributed to this report, whether it was through helping to set up interviews, promoting the survey, completing the survey, or talking to us about their experiences.

We know that the experiences people shared with us were not always easy to discuss. We hope that this report has fairly recorded the full range of experiences NZDF personnel told us about and is useful to assist in making NZDF a place where all people feel safe from harm, respected and included.

1: See McGregor, K and Smith, R (2015), Airforce Culture Review, Tiaki Consultants; Ministry of Defence (2014), Maximising Opportunities for Military Women, New Zealand Government; Ministry of Defence (2015), Recruit training – assessing the quality of recruit training in the New Zealand Defence Force, New Zealand Government.

2: Office of the Auditor-General (2023), New Zealand Defence Force: Resetting efforts to reduce harmful behaviour, at oag.parliament.nz.

3: We use the term unwanted sexual activity to cover the behaviours that fall within the category of sexual assault. We use the term inappropriate sexual behaviour to cover a range of behaviours that sit outside the category of sexual assault, including mistreatment based on gender or sexuality and sexually suggestive jokes or comments.

4: Regular forces excludes reservists and contractors. The survey was run from 15 February 2022 to 20 March 2022 and 12,492 NZDF personnel were invited to participate. NZDF promoted the survey through several different channels. Personnel were not compelled to complete it. There were 6673 responses (a 53.4% response rate).

5: We use “many”, “most”, or “often” if something was commonly experienced. We generally use “some” when more than a few people, but not most people, have identified an issue or experience. We use “several” or “a few” when only a small number of people have raised a view or described an experience.

6: We define a military workplace as anywhere in an NZDF office building, on a base, camp, or ship, including barracks and messes, as well as deployments, temporary duty, training courses, and exercises.

7: Unwanted sexual activity included having anyone at a military workplace in the last 12 months forcing or attempting to force someone into any unwanted sexual activity by threatening, holding them down, or hurting them in some way; subjecting them to a sexual activity that they had not consented to, including through being drugged, intoxicated, or forced in ways other than physical; or touching them in a sexual way against their will, including unwanted touching, grabbing, kissing, or fondling. The last 12 months is the period before personnel completed the survey.

8: Inappropriate sexual behaviour included anyone experiencing one of several behaviours in the last 12 months at a military workplace, including sexually suggestive jokes, comments or discussion of their personal life; unwanted sexual advances; displaying or sharing sexually explicit messages or inappropriate photos or videos; and being insulted or mistreated based on their gender or sexual orientation.

9: When people join NZDF, they join as either a commissioned officer (often just referred to as officer) or a non-commissioned officer (often referred to as an NCO). Officers hold positions of authority and command roles. NCOs are not commissioned but earn their position of authority by rising through the ranks. NCOs take on leadership positions within their units, but they are of lower rank than commissioned officers.

10: Office of the Auditor-General (2022), Putting integrity at the core of how public organisations operate: An integrity framework for the public sector, at oag.parliament.nz.

11: SAPRAs are experts in the subject of harmful sexual behaviour. They provide practical information, resources, and support on responding to and preventing any form of harmful sexual behaviour.

12: These are colloquial terms that members of NZDF use. A person’s 1-up is the person immediately above them in the chain of command or management structure, who they directly report to. Their 2-up is the person above their 1-up in the chain of command or management structure.

13: Data was collected between September 2021 and April 2022.