High hopes for workplace leaders

4 December 2017

Striving for change. Zero tolerance. Cultural renewal. Core values. A montage of CEOs, Vice Chancellors and Directors have stepped up to the lectern to take ownership of these words in 2017. Each one has declared, in no uncertain terms, that the ‘time for action is now’ before pausing for charismatic effect. Taking a sip of water, they have each denounced sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, unequal pay and barriers to equal leadership roles, labeling them the waste product of thriving cultural environments, and again asserting that the time has come for ‘real action’. We agree.

Now more than ever, our leaders say they are at the ready. This means that, as employees, we must make sure that our standards of expectation for being treated with respect and equality are set at the highest level. We know that our employers and senior managers have a duty of care to protect us from sexual harassment and other forms of harm in the workplace. We expect them to take all reasonable steps to protect us- but it’s important to be clear on what this practically means. As employees, we must own the vital role that we play in maintaining workplace standards. In fact, the part that we play to keep our employers and managers accountable is just as important as their own- and will often require us to courageously move outside our comfort zone with a fair bit of grit.

As a starting point, we should expect that the rules of the game be set out clearly by employers and senior managers. The rules will invariably be presented in form of workplace policies and, depending on the size of the workplace, these policies may take on different levels of sophistication. However, the essence should be clear- sexual harassment and other discriminatory conduct will not be tolerated. Everyone in the workplace should be given adequate opportunities to ask questions and grapple with the policy until they are comfortable with the meaning of the rules.

Then, from time to time, all workplace employees should be reminded of those policies. Again, our national guidelines explain that the form of required training will depend on the size of the workplace. Sometimes there will be refresher seminars offered, other times an email will be circulated to remind people of the expected standards and sometimes the rules will be displayed visually in the tea room or on toolbox lids.

Once everyone has been brought up to speed with the expected code of conduct, we can expect that our workplace experience not ever be punctuated with Wolf of Wall Street behaviour. Unwanted sexual teasing, stroking, bottom slapping, ‘tits appreciation’ and pleas for kisses are officially as outdated in the workplace as 80’s shoulder pads. We can also expect that more subtle (but equally loathsome) forms of sex discrimination be made redundant too, such as congratulatory comments like “You did pretty well…for a woman”, or the ostensibly innocuous “It should be illegal to look so pretty in a meeting, I just can’t concentrate.” Prettiness is not illegal, but happily, sex discrimination is.

Despite the practical steps that are taken to bring the mouldy core of sexual harassment into the light, 38 per cent of women between the ages of 18 and 24 have experienced its rottenness in the workplace according to recent ABS figures. 93 per cent of women in agricultural industries will experience sexual harassment in the course of their daily working life.1 These statistics are shocking and, in the spirit of contributing to meaningful cultural change for ourselves and others, we must live our values by calling sexual harassment for the unlawful rubbish that it is.

At first instance, it might be as simple as pausing to look the perpetrator in the eye and asking them why they felt it appropriate to make a comment about oral sex in the workplace. After their awkward attempts to justify the statement, we might say firmly “No, that was sexual harassment. Please don’t do that again.” If we find that the behaviour does reoccur, we must seek help from our manager or employer. The real irony is that traditionally, women have felt risks associated with reporting sexual harassment- the fear of retribution, the fear of being labeled a trouble maker, the fear of job loss, the fear of gossip, and so on. Speaking truth to outdated workplace nonsense has come at the cost of time, energy and, perhaps most significantly, has required undaunted guts.

However, through the current high profile work of women like Tracey Spicer and also through the unflinching boldness of Australian women such as Rebecca Richardson and Kristy Fraser-Kirk who have marched their employers all the way to the Federal Court over recent years, we are reprogramming the norms so that reporting sexual harassment can become more standard. And when we do report, bear in mind that a good test of thriving leadership is how a leader treats an employee who has the courage to raise uncomfortable and legitimate issues such as sexual harassment bullying, gender pay inequity and so on.

To this point, only about one third of Australian women have felt able to approach their workplace leader about their experience of sexual harassment. It’s time to make reporting the new normal when sexual harassment does occur.

When we seek an appointment with the person at the top, and in line with the action pledges that so many Australian leaders are now making, we can expect to be heard in professional confidence and to be treated with dignity. Anything less is a breach of the employer’s duty of care and is unlawful in itself. We can expect that we will be kept informed of the progress of any necessary investigation and we can expect never to have to self-flagellate for ‘making a fuss’. This is what the new normal- zero tolerance for sexual harassment and workplace inequalities- is all about.

1 Saunders, Skye ‘Whispers from the Bush – The Workplace Sexual Harassment of Australian Rural Women’, Federation Press, 2015.

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