You are here What promotes ongoing abuse in an organisation?

Last amended 
18 April 2017

What promotes ongoing abuse in an organisation? 

Abuse is common in Australia with 1 in 5 women and 1 in 22 men having experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. One in 3 women and 1 in 2 men have experienced physical violence during their lifetime. As illustrated by cases presented at the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse, organisations can perpetuate the risk of abuse though their organisational culture, their processes or people. Many of the following factors are associated with higher risks of abuse within society generally, but they manifest in particular ways in the military: 

Minority groups may be at risk because they are not accepted as part of the majority group. The military has traditionally been a male dominated environment with individuals such as women and people from the LGBTI community in the minority and therefore more susceptible to abuse.

When people are in positions of power, it is easier for them to commit abuse if they choose to do so. For this reason, organisations with a strong hierarchical structure, such as the military command structure, are environments where the risk of abuse needs to be managed. For example, the command structure can be used by some perpetrators to “groom” (in other words, manipulate) or threaten potential victims.

A belief that there will be no adverse consequences for abuse increases the likelihood of a person committing abuse. A strong sense of group belonging and strict hierarchy, as can be seen in the military, can discourage reporting of abuse, and create a culture of silence.

In groups and/or units where bullying and bastardisation are seen as legitimate tools to instigate group belonging and identification, abuse can be normalised, and therefore more frequent.

Importantly, organisational cultures and processes evolve over time, so it is important to understand the context of the abuse at the time it occurred. For example, notions of hierarchy and discipline, and practices to enforce them have changed in the military over time. In addition, different parts of the military have distinct cultures and approaches, which may lead to different risk levels and influence the experiences of survivors both during and following the abuse.

The following table presents a range of myths and facts about the reasons why abuse can occur in an organisation.



  • All perpetrators of sexual abuse have been sexually abused themselves
  • All perpetrators have mental health issues
  • Abuse, particularly sexual abuse, occurs because the perpetrator has lost control or is seeking pleasure
  • Education and awareness is all that is needed to prevent abuse. If people understand what is acceptable in an organisation, they won’t perpetrate abuse.
  • Some survivors of sexual abuse have also been abused themselves
  • Abuse is about demonstrating or maintaining power over someone or a group. It is a tool used to ensure control
  • Lower grade and pay associated with greater risk of experiencing abuse
  • Culture can play a role in maintaining abuse- e.g. hierarchy, strong group cohesion and enforced obedience
  • Abuse can be maintained through tacit acceptance or silence and lack of consequences for perpetrators
  • Victim blaming is a key element of a culture that promotes abuse
  • Gender is a risk factor- male dominated organisations can lead to greater risk of abuse for women
  • Being in a minority group within an organisation or culture is a risk factor
  • While education about what is acceptable within an organisation can help to reduce abuse, many other interventions are needed to lower risk including providing early support for survivors and ensuring that decision makers/leaders support minorities and the reporting of abuse.