2015 has been another interesting and challenging year for Australian employers. Increased economic instability, global currency shifts and another change in the leadership of the land have confirmed the old adage that the only thing that is constant is change.
Indeed, leadership, and what we expect of our leaders, has been a question much in the news. It would appear that even in Canberra there is recognition that sound leadership incorporates genuine inclusion of colleagues, listening to diverse perspectives, showing respect to stakeholders and explaining one’s decisions! In the business world, Orica parted company with its CEO Ian Smith in March, citing his abrasive and aggressive style. The organisation suggested that it saw these attributes as attractive when the board chose to appoint him to lead a large restructure program, which raises an interesting question as to why companies still consider ‘old school’ attributes as likely to inspire staff and promote buy-in to difficult decisions.
Meanwhile Bronwyn Bishop was revolutionising the concept of reasonable business expenses with her helicopter ride to Geelong. This was indeed something of a theme for 2015, with Kathy Jackson and Nino Napoli having a similarly pioneering perspective on this topic. These cases serve as a warning to all employers to define clearly what is expected of employees, to impose limits on spending (what, how much, for what purpose) to audit regularly against compliance requirements , especially at the less governed senior levels of the hierarchy, and to ensure their policies will actually allow them to take action if transgressions occur. The Royal Commission into child sexual abuse continues to provide important lessons in the importance of the maintenance of proper records; of adequate, timely and independent complaints-handling processes and the need for these to do more than simply mitigate institutional reputational risk. Abuses in disability and aged care also remind us that the combination of unsupervised power on the one hand, and vulnerability on the other, creates a potent risk for inappropriate conduct.
Commissioner Dyson Heydon surprised a few people in deciding on the application that he stand down as the royal commissioner investigating trade union corruption – essentially reviewing a complaint against himself – and finding his own conduct appropriate, then deeming he should remain in his post. A few employees would probably also like the opportunity to judge complaints against them. This matter did underline the importance of perceptions of bias – not just ‘actual’ bias – in order for decisions to be seen as fair and reasonable.
As the courageous Rosie Batty appeared on the national stage to illuminate the scourge of domestic violence, many employers responded by improving workplace support to victims and joining the White Ribbon campaign. It is estimated that 1 in 6 women in Australia will experience violence from a current or former partner, so it is possible that someone is suffering in your workplace. Like schools and homes, workplaces have an important role to play in addressing the systemic issues. Employers can make two important contributions in this field by defining and requiring respectful behaviour towards women in the workplace and educating co-workers on how to intervene when bad things happen. Zero tolerance to violence or sexualised conduct of any type in the workplace, including at work functions, is another important standard to enforce.
Social media continues to provide new ways for people to get themselves into trouble! It is also raising interesting differences between the generations, for example with regard to attitudes to privacy.
Scott McIntyre’s tweets about Anzac day provide a case example of the complexities facing employers in this arena. Whose twitter account was he using? Were the comments made factual? Was he working when he tweeted? Was the real issue not that he tweeted but that he refused to remove the tweet? Do any of those factors matter? The same issues were raised this month, when a hotel employee was fired for online abuse of Fairfax journalist Clementine Ford. What is clear is that organisations need to think through their position on use of media platforms – in particular, how the employer can respond when the online ‘troll’ is identifiable as one of its employees – and provide consistent and credible guidelines to staff. We suggest you engage some of your young employees in developing your thinking, as they will see angles that you may otherwise miss entirely.
While we may not realistically hope for a new year without bad behaviour in the workplace, we hope that the events of 2015 have left us all wiser, better able to manage risk, and well placed to lead healthy, happy and ethical workplaces.
We wish you a happy and safe festive season and look forward to working with you in 2016.