Year in Review | The power of compassion and humility

Kairen Harris
December 4, 2019

At the beginning of the year, our hope for 2019 was for a year of accountability for delivering results according to our values and behavioural standards.  As we look back on the year that was,  it seems that – with some notable exceptions – there is still a long way to go before this is a universal reality.

Lack of governance and accountability at the highest levels

After the banking Royal Commission last year, we all hoped Boards and CEOs everywhere, but especially in banks, had heard the clarion call to better audits and effective governance. But if it is true that Westpac failed to detect or report (as legally required) millions of suspect transactions worth billions of dollars, then this would appear not to be the case.

Likewise, after a plethora of well advertised wage theft fines for smaller businesses (like 7-Eleven franchisees) who underpaid staff their entitled wage and/or didn’t pay their overtime at all,  it is shocking to find Woolworths has only just realised that it has been in apparent breach of its agreed Award for a number of years. Get checking folks!

Joining this disappointing leadership performance, John Setka, along with politicians too numerous to mention (but how about Angus Taylor and David Leyonhjelm for the 2020 disrespect awards), make me wonder what standards of decency we have a right to expect (or are prepared to accept) in this, the 21st century.

It is doubly troubling that there does not appear to be adequate overight, accountability or any meaningful penalties available in many cases.  Consider the illegal dumping of toxic chemicals in populated areas.  Who for example would regard a year off work on a salary of $2 million +as a sanction for breaking the law a million times? Not, I suspect, shareholder who have pay the bill.  Meanwhile, Witness K faces the prospect of a long sentence for reporting an international crime (the illegal bugging of the East Timor embassy to secure an unfair and unlawful advantage in a trade negotiation with a third world and impoverished country) whilst those who committed the crime  face no sanction at all.

How can employers then instill the requirement for ethical behaviour in front line staff when this is occurring at the highest levels? How can we hope to persuade ordinary vulnerable people to report high misdemeanours?

The price of not picking up these issues early is about to run into the millions for some employers.

Respect vs Personal Opinion and Political Correctness

Elsewhere Israel Falau tested the boundaries of an employer’s ability to contractually constrain the ‘public’ utterances of its employees.  A complex clash of an individual’s right a personal opinion; an employer’s right to protect its brand and everyone’s right not to be publicly belittled.

An ABC survey discovered that 93% of Australians think we should be more respectful of each other – yet more than two thirds of the same respondents also believe that believe that political correctness has ‘gone too far’ and that ‘people are too easily offended’.  Yet the legislation disparagingly referred to as ‘political correctness’ was brought in to protect those who were statistically vulnerable or powerless (children, the aged, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, carers, people with disabilities, the mentally ill, consumers)  and thus who are susceptible to disrespect and disempowerment (discrimination, bullying, violence, harassment, neglect, theft, exposure to shonky or lethal or misrepresented products).

It is hard to conclude political correctness has gone too far, if you watched the experience of Adam Goodes, so confrontingly captured in the powerful documentary, The Final Quarter,  or if you have tuned in to any part of the shocking submissions to the Royal Commissions into Aged Care or Disability.

However, alongside dispiriting Corporate failures and bizarre ethics-free zone in some political spaces, 2019 has also brought us evidence of the best in humanity.

The Power of Humility and Compassion

As horrific fires rage across huge swathes of Australia, the amazing volunteers of the Country Fire and Emergency services have put themselves in harm’s way, repeatedly, to try and save the homes  of their neighbours and complete strangers. A band of retirees is travelling round the country repairing fencing for farmers ravaged by both drought and fire.

Ash Barty has shown that it possible to be a highly paid elite performer and still retain humility, humour and a sense of perspective.

Jacinta Ardern has shown the power of compassion and community in the face of division and hatred.

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II  drives a public movement on plastic waste.

Greta Tunberg showed that one small authentic voice can turn a droplet into a wave.

So for 2020, we hope that leaders will pay better attention to governance and that everyone will demonstrate humility and compassion as they go about their work.

Then we can all work in workplaces we can be proud to call our own.

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