Workplace complaints: why they may be a sign your complaints mechanisms are working

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29 March 2022

It’s so common, it’s a cliche: a company or some other organisation is ticking along, seemingly ok, no big scary red buzzers going off; but bubbling beneath the surface, things aren’t quite so great.

Perhaps it’s something barely perceptible, a slightly higher turnover of staff in an area. Sometimes it’s some truth bombs emerging in an exit interview – or even worse, several of them. Maybe you’re in a public organisation putting your finishing touches on a shiny new Gender Equality Action Plan (GEAP) but the results of the workplace gender audit induced something between chronic eyebrow twitching and cold sweats.

The question most often asked is “why didn’t they say something”? And for the record, the questions we think we should be asking is “how did this happen?” and “how do we make sure it never happens again?”.

We’ve had quite a year coming to grips with this in Australian workplaces and in society at large. The forces of nature that are Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame have done their darndest to keep us talking about it. 

Brittany Higgins’s story is one most of us now known – Brittany went for drinks at a bar after work. She woke up, naked, in her boss’s office the next morning. Everything that happened between the bar and when Brittany woke up is off limits in this discussion because there’s a criminal case on foot. As it’s possible that the employer’s response may be canvassed in court, we won’t be talking about that, either. Except to say that the circumstances of your employment when you’re a Minister’s aide in Parliament House is unlike any other workplace relationship in the country. 

Or is it?

From Brittany’s point of view, making a formal complaint internally or reporting her colleague to the police would have ended her career. There was an election coming, a story like this would inevitably leak, a scandal would follow. As a staffer, taking action that might damage election hopes is considered unforgivable and that is an impossible set of circumstances for any young woman to face.  

And in your workplace? What would happen if you made a formal complaint or reported a colleague to the police? To your boss? And what if it is the boss?

The terrible truth is that things didn’t just play out this way because they happened in Federal Parliament. The truth is that violence against women and sexual assault are not uncommon in Australia, and it’s not unusual for a workplace to be in some way involved. Successful prosecutions remain extremely rare. The circumstances of Ms Higgins case might look extreme, and there’s no doubt just how extreme the impact has been on Brittany Higgins. But sexual assaul isn’t rare. We wish we could say it was. We wish we could tell you that other awful and unlawful experiences in workplaces are exceptional, but the truth is that sexual assault is common and that sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and victimisation are, too. 

“Ah, but…” you say, “Wasn’t the problem that parliament house staff didn’t have a complaints process? We’re all good – we have a policy!”

Policies, complaints systems, other elements of the frameworks that protect the integrity of your workplace and the safety of your employees are essential. If you want great policies, systems or frameworks that actually work, get in touch

But the hard truth is that your policy means nothing if:

(a) it isn’t a great one; and/or 

(b) you don’t follow it. 

Every. Time.

In Victoria, the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 doesn’t let employers off the hook. If you, as employer or principal, do not take ‘reasonable precautions’ to prevent an employee engaging in discrimination, sexual harassment or victimisaiton, then you are vicariously liable. That means that if you don’t try to get to the bottom of what’s alleged, you’re unlikely to be considered to have taken reasonable precautions. And that means that as an employer, you’re responsible too.  

So when you receive a complaint, bring in the experts (like us), take some advice and commission a fair and independent investigation. 

By the end of March ‘22, every entity in Victoria that has some authority-relationship to the state government will have produced a Gender Equality Action Plan (GEAP). GEAP’s commit leaders to identify gendered barriers to career success and to taking real steps to improve the conditions of women at work. 

Federally, the government has made some progress in implementing the recommendations of the Respect@Work report. So far they have squibbed the opportunity to legislate a national requirement that workplaces have a positive duty to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation, but Victoria already has these in place

If you have developed your workplace’s GEAP, you are well aware that just having a policy isn’t going to cut it. Employers and principals are expected to have an effective prevention plan and to act meaningfully on any sniff of inappropriate conduct, particularly where there’s an actual complaint received. 

So while we’re pleased you have a policy, you need more than that, and we live to provide just the support you need! Give us a call and we’ll work with you and your organisation to ensure that you have top shelf policies and that you’re never tempted to slip difficult complaints or circumstances into the bottom drawer. We’ll help train your leaders and employees so that they have the skills and knowledge to understand what’s ok and what’s not, to address and report conduct that isn’t up to scratch, to know what the process and responses will and must be where that happens and, most importantly, to start to ensure that this kind of conduct never happens in the first place. 

Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame are forces of nature and we are strong members of their fan clubs. Their courage is exceptional and even where the processes and policies and systems have failed them utterly, they lead. 

To honour that courage, our questions must not be ‘why didn’t she…?” but “how do we prevent it?” and “what’s my part in the solution?”. 

The answers are many, but one of them is that Lacey & Co is absolutely committed to supporting you and your workplace with systems for prevention and advice on appropriate action. Our expert advice and investigatory processes ensure that where you receive a complaint, a sniff of an “open secret”, or whispers about toxicity then instead of being relegated to the bottom drawer, those issues are handled fairly and with discretion, compassion and integrity.