It has been almost 12 months since the introduction of the Respect @ Work amendments to the Fair Work Act (Cth). The amendments expressly prohibit hostile workplace environments and place a positive duty on employers to eliminate these behaviours.
The Bill represented a significant shift away from the previous complaint-based system to one that now requires a pro-active approach. While the Bill was praised as a significant step forward in preventing harassment in the workplace, I question if our workplaces and their stakeholders are truly ready to implement the structural changes necessary for this amendment to have the impact it intends - and so desperately needs.
I know many workplaces have edited their policies and training programs to comply with the new positive duty requirements, so from that perspective employers have ticked the box. But will we see the underlying changes we require to effect real change?
I would contest that nearly all employers, regardless of industry, have practices or considerations that make it very difficult to act against key individuals who engage in negative behaviours and perpetuate the culture the amendments are trying to change.
Consider the following examples:
- Industries that rely on grants, including the not-for-profit sector.
- These organisations often have key individuals tied to funding grants. Exiting that key individual could potentially have impact on years of research and the livelihoods of the underlying teams, whose employment is often fixed term and subject to renewal based on annal funding.
- Asset management businesses
- The loss of senior fund managers nearly always leads to ratings downgrades, outflows and profit losses. We saw a very public example of this recently at AMP with Boe Pahari‘s exit, but this is not the only example.
- Consulting firms
- In many consulting firms there is a strong power imbalance between junior and senior workers, which is reinforced by the work assignments and promotions systems. Raising a concern against a senior consultant or partner could impact opportunities and therefore promotions. Exiting partners could also result in the loss of high-revenue client relationships.
- Distribution and sales
- Across all industries these roles are strongly reliant on client relationships, and it is not unusual for clients to follow a trusted contact when they leave an organisation.
- Higher education
- High profile professors, who can now reach even more students due to virtual classrooms and podcasts, are key to enrolments and the ongoing status of an academic institution. Any corrective behaviour can also result in an imbalance for other professors.
- Tech sector
- The 10x developer or engineer is highly valued by the organisation and a key person risk to client retention and profit.
There are numerous case studies and research that prove a positive and healthy workplace culture delivers better results over the long-term, but the challenge is how do we get there from where we are?
Boards and CEOs are focused on delivering shareholder return, and no CEO wants to go into a results season explaining that a poor balance sheet is due to cultural issues at their organisation.
It is going to take a brave CEO who is willing to have a very public and honest discourse about the challenges they face, with the backing of a Board that is truly committed to their sustainability and inclusion vision. And it is going to take demand from the public – you, clients, shareholders, grant issuers, and stakeholders – to eliminate those practices that perpetuate imbalance – regardless of the short-term profit impact.
Perhaps together we can find a way to create the needed change that will allow all individuals to truly thrive. Only then will the legislation have the teeth to be effective.
Interested to learn more? See our Gender Stereotypes post for examples of some needed changes.
Allison Monahan | Ombpoint Adviser
1300 709 389