World Day for Safety and Health at Work and Workers Memorial Day is upon us and this year the theme is about anticipating, preparing, and responding to crises while also investing in resilient work health and safety systems.
As we approach World Day for Safety and Health at Work, I started to reflect on how much has been written in the media over the last few months about sexual harassment and why it should be treated as a work, health, and safety issue. I tend to agree and applaud Safe Work Australia’s recently released guidance on how to identify and prevent this workplace risk.
I watch with interest to see how the government implement the recommendations stemming from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work report; however, given the time it takes matters like this to move through the machine that is government, my advice would be to read the report if you have not already, and start thinking about what you could be doing now. This is where the theme of this year’s World Day for Safety and Health at Work comes in: Anticipate, Prepare and Respond.
Your organisation may never have had a report of sexual harassment and in that case, the organisation’s belief may be that sexual harassment is not occurring. That could quite possibly be true; however, it could also be your employees are 1) not comfortable making a complaint 2) do not know how to make a complaint or 3) are unsure how the organisation would respond if a complaint was made. It could be you do have an issue and you do not know it yet. In our experience, low reporting rates do not always mean misconduct is not happening.
Anticipate that at some point your organisation may have a report of sexual harassment and take the time now before it happens to think about how you would manage it. Get a sense from your employees about how much they understand about these issues, the organisation’s approach to this type of risk and be courageous enough to ask the question—would you feel supported by our organisation if something like sexual harassment happened to you? A cultural audit (one of the recommendations from the AHRC report) can be useful to obtain the right type of feedback you will need to get that sense.
Most organisations have a policy, a values statement, or a code of conduct and in my opinion, these documents get referred to ad nauseam. Don’t get me wrong, it is always good practice (and a must) to have them, review them, and provide your employees with training about them; however, managing these types of issues goes beyond the glossy values poster on the wall.
Prepare by assessing your employee support mechanisms. Ask yourself, is our EAP sufficient or do we need access to some other form of support for victims of sexual misconduct? Do you have bystanders or upstanders in your organisations? Your cultural audit might tell you and if you do have bystanders, start training employees in how to address employee misconduct directly and indirectly now. Train employees on how to recognise the potential signs of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Train employees to be curious.
Do you have employees in your HR team who have had mental health first aid training?
It is important to understand what it means to manage issues like this from a trauma informed point of view. Are they comfortable managing serious misconduct issues like this? Do you have the resources internally or externally to provide the right level of support to a complainant, the respondent, and any other employees who may be affected by an issue like this?
Finally, do you have the right type of reporting mechanism and do your employees know what they are?
When I conduct a cultural audit, I ask each interviewee if they know how to make a complaint and when they say yes, I always ask them to describe how. Invariably, they say they would report it to their manager or HR. When I ask them what they would do if the complaint was about their manager or HR, they sometimes become confused and unsure. This is a potential barrier to reporting. Ensuring employees fully understand their options lowers the risk of employees not reporting issues when they arise and is part of a safe and supportive culture.
Respond by acknowledging a complaint has been made. Then, take a moment to 1) plan the organisation’s response, 2) initiate your support mechanisms to reduce the risk of continued victimisation and 3) manage the welfare of the complainant and the respondent.
Initiate the complaint management process, assess the complaint, and investigate it or if the complainant does not wish to formally engage in an investigation process, assess what their and the organisation’s options are. Be proactive.
World Day for Safety and Health at Work is just one day in the calendar and it is our responsibility to ensure the safety of our employees at work is a constant; however, it is a good time to reflect and consider that you are doing everything you can to promote a safe and healthy workplace and reduce the risk of misconduct.