It is quite unsettling when presented with claims being made about bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Articles such as the recent one by Case Biggs from ABC News, is just another headline that presents allegations of sexual harassment, barbaric treatment, abuse of power, bullying and intimidation. In this report, former and current employees of the Sheriff’s Office have made claims some dating back more than a decade ago.

What has been alleged by a past employee as “volumes of unsavory behaviour….. most of which was left unreported” talks to one of the most significant issues we face in the Australian workplace. That is, for the most part, people can identify when behaviour is out of line.

However, unfortunately, far too many workplaces have not created the type of environment and workplace culture that makes people feel safe to report misconduct. Generally, this is because they do not trust their colleagues and their boss will take the claim seriously, or through fear of repercussions, including victimisation, of bringing such matters to the attention of senior staff in the organisation.

This creates situations such as the one being reported on in the article by Biggs, whereby a female member of staff made a statement that “I felt as a young single female I would not have been supported or believed and I was petrified of losing my job or being labelled as a ‘dobber’ or weak.”

This is the big issue that every organisation faces today. Firstly, does everyone in our organisation understand what is workplace bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination and other areas of misconduct? Then secondly, do our leaders create an environment where people feel safe to report such issues? And then thirdly, if an incident is brought to the attention of a manager, are they equipped to deal with the situation at hand in a lawful and respectful way, in accordance with the organisations policies and procedures, as they work through to resolution.

Step 1: Identify

Those organisations with a robust workplace relations and safety program in place tend to address the first area of ‘identify’ because they provide training to staff at induction and on an ongoing basis, in many different formats including online compliance training such as that provided by Australia’s leading compliance training company, Sentrient, an Australian owned and operated business based in Melbourne.

Such organisations also make it clear as to their policies and procedures, for what constitutes misconduct and how to report and resolve such incidents, should they occur in the workplace. Together, the training and having policies in place demonstrates they are taking all reasonable steps. Without such a program, situations such as that presented in the recent report by Biggs becomes a reality for most organisations.

Step 2: Report

Even with effective training and policies in place, the process of reporting, is most likely to occur in organisations with a workplace culture where the staff feels supported by their peers and their management team. Even if the misconduct, or ‘perceived’ misconduct was coming from a senior manager, in organisations with the right culture in place, people will feel they have avenues to report through HR, another Senior Manager, or other senior colleagues who can guide them through the process.

Once reported, it means that the organisation can do something about the incident right there and then, not letting it sit dormant for months and sometimes years, meanwhile, the same behaviour could be carried out and affect many others in the organisation.

Statements, such as the one quoted in the article by Bigss, “In recent years I have gained more confidence in myself and in the management team … I believe the Sheriff’s Office and the managers are being proactive and working together to stamp out these behaviours.” talk to the type of environment that needs to be created to enable employees to feel comfortable to report issues of misconduct. That is, employees have the assurance that their supervisors will listen to them, support them and take action to address misconduct in the workplace.

Step 3: Resolve

The resolution process can take many and varied forms, however, most reports made for misconduct can generally be dealt with by a manager, with or without support from HR and actions put in place can prevent this from happening again. In more serious issues allegations of misconduct, more formal processes can take place, including termination of employment, because incidents such as bullying, harassment and discrimination are serious issues and are not to be tolerated in any workplace.

What does this mean for you and your organisation?

As a rule of thumb, having a staff that can identify and report issues of misconduct, along with a management team that can resolve such issues, including formal processes, prevents indecent behaviour from being considered as ‘that is just the way it is around here’ or for such incidents to be ‘swept under the carpet’.
Interestingly, organisations that have not had training or appropriate policies in place for matters such as bullying, harassment and discrimination often find that within the first 12-18 months that reports of misconduct increase. What this means is that you now have the chance to deal with it, which is a far better position to be in then having such issues going unmanaged and potentially becoming even bigger problems in the future.

PHOTO: The Sheriff’s Office is located in the Sir Samuel Way court building. (ABC News: Eugene Boisvert)