Glacial change and Respect@Work

In 2020, the Respect@Work inquiry led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins laid out a comprehensive plan to foster workplaces where every employee feels safe, respected, and free from harassment. However, does the reality often differ from these ideals, especially when it comes to holding senior figures accountable?

Some examples

Take the recent uproar at Channel Seven Network. The spotlight is currently shining on the questionable culture fostered by its senior leadership. A prominent figure in commercial current affairs who has faced numerous serious allegations over the years has thrived in his career for decades until recent controversy led to his recent departure. What questions does this raise about the judgment and actions of Channel Seven Network’s leadership, especially in getting the balance right between a “star” and the culture of the organisation?

In another case, the NSW Personal Injury Commission ruled in favour of a former CEO who suffered psychological harm during his employment. He endured intimidation, exclusion, and racial insults from his Managing Director, leading to a distressing work environment. Despite the CEO’s ordeal, his employer initially denied responsibility. However, the commission’s investigation uncovered substantial evidence supporting the CEO’s claims of mistreatment.

So, why do we keep seeing cases where organisations seemingly protect their top brass despite troubling behaviour?

One theory is the enduring culture of shielding ‘rainmakers’. These are the stars — highly skilled, influential, and key players in driving significant revenue for the organisation. They’re often seen as charismatic and essential to the organisation’s success, and this sometimes leads to turning a blind eye, or making excuses for their actions, in the name of preserving top talent and the bottom line.

Another factor contributing to this issue could be the inherent power imbalances within traditional organisational structures. Subordinates may hesitate to speak up or challenge those in higher positions, as these individuals hold sway over crucial aspects like compensation, career progression, and professional reputation within their industry. This dynamic creates a reluctance to confront misconduct or inappropriate behaviour among the top ranks, further complicating efforts to address these issues effectively.

We also can’t overlook the importance of applying a gender lens to this topic. Numerous studies such as the 2021 report published by the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gender and Retaliation: The Costs of Speaking Up Against Harassment, substantiates the theory that women, culturally, are less inclined to speak up against their male superiors due to fear of retaliation. This gendered dynamic adds complexity to the issue, and addressing it requires a nuanced and inclusive approach to ensure all voices are heard and valued.

Deloitte’s 2022 Australian-based research, Breaking the Norm, also delves into the correlation between gender norms and the ongoing gender disparities. They emphasise that societal beliefs, encapsulated in gender norms, are the driving force behind gender inequity. These norms shape expectations, which in turn influence behaviour, ultimately shaping our reality in institutions, workplaces, and relationships.

Ingrained from early life through family, education, peers, and media, these norms can lead to internalised preferences or external biases, affecting decisions and societal structures. Real progress in gender equity requires us to confront and reshape these fundamental cultural norms.

Finally…

Employers must start taking proactive measures to establish safe environments from top to bottom. This means going beyond having whistle-blowing channels in place. It’s about fundamentally changing how things are done. It means valuing transparency, holding everyone accountable regardless of their rank, and sticking to ethical standards across the board.

Transforming these cultural norms and power dynamics won’t happen overnight – it will require courage and perseverance over time. The #MeToo movement showed us the power of speaking up against powerful people and how it can completely change how we view and deal with misconduct. We need that kind of courage to hold the most influential amongst us accountable for their actions.

Holly Wilson  | Ombpoint Adviser

1300 709 389
hello@ombpoint.com

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