Risky Business? Respect is everything at work.

You’d have to have been living under a rock recently not to have heard that there are some major changes coming about in our legislation to further embed the changes recommended by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) Respect@Work report.

And we know that for many clients this is creating a bit of concern as to how they can get on the front foot of the changes and prepare.

Keep calm ….. and read on – we’ll unpack it all a bit further for you and give you some top tips to make a start.

The Changes (we’ll keep it short and sweet for you)

The government committed to implementing all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report and legislation changes to strengthen laws around preventing sexual harassment.

The Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Bill 2022 has been introduced to do just that.

If passed (and we understand there is momentum to do so before the festive season), it will introduce a positive duty on employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate workplace sexual harassment, victimisation and sex discrimination (under the Sex Discrimination Act) plus give AHRC powers to enforce this (under the AHRC Act).

Essentially the changes proposed set out:

  • Prohibition of conduct that subjects another person to a workplace environment that is hostile on the grounds of sex. (this isn’t just about behaviour being directed to an individual person but covers sexually charged or hostile work environments).
    • Examples of behaviours might include sexual banter, innuendo or sexist jokes, or displaying obscene materials.
  • A positive duty for employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sexual harassment, harassment on the ground of sex, hostile work environments and victimisation. For the astute amongst you – there is already a positive duty under WHS legislation to eliminate the risk of sexual harassment as far as practicable. The changes in this section are to increase focus on proactive prevention (or what we refer to as early intervention and awareness) vs responding when an incident occurs.
    • Examples of activities for this part include reviewing and implementing policies and procedures, data monitoring and analysis, providing appropriate supports and delivery of training and awareness on a regular basis.
  • Providing powers to the AHRC to enforce compliance with the positive duty. Essentially AHRC could inquire and assess compliance with the employer’s positive duty. This section won’t commence until 12 months post ‘go live’ of the Bill – no doubt there will be a ‘compliance’ team and resources to support employers.
  • Provide powers to AHRC to inquire into systemic unlawful discrimination. AHRC could inquire into any matter relating to systemic unlawful discrimination – actual or suspected.
  • Changing the threshold of harassment on the grounds of sex. Currently, it contains the word ‘serious’ and this word would be removed so as not to impose an unnecessarily high threshold on applicants who put matters to AHRC. The threshold for harassment on the grounds of sex will be “unwelcome conduct of a seriously demeaning nature”.

Proceedings put to AHRC will be a ‘no costs’ jurisdiction. Parties to a proceeding will bear their own costs unless the court considers circumstances to justify an order for costs. Essentially it means greater flexibility to award costs where appropriate.

What can you do?

As always, we like to be immediately practical and supportive and give you some hints as to what you can do now.

  1. Review your policies and procedures.

We’d suggest you start a review now– changes are coming through rapidly and it is of benefit to keep ahead. If the changes are passed, you’ll also see additional guidelines and requirements that you will need to ensure are covered off.

Over the past two to three years we have seen significant changes also in expectations of employees and how they want to be supported in this space.

How we can help: We know each of the best practice guidelines and reports in-depth and can quickly undertake a review and gap analysis.

  1. Conduct a culture review/check

Culture and the way we behave in our workplaces underpins everything that we do. It is about relationships, the way we lead and treat each other, and how we work together to deliver excellent outcomes for clients, communities and each other.

When a culture is not inclusive or unfair, this often leads to inappropriate behaviours.

Conducting a culture review enables you to understand your work environment and how it feels to be an employee working there.

How we can help: We tailor and design every culture review uniquely to match the needs of organisations. We call it co-curation and our aim is always to work with you to find the process and rhythm that fits with your company culture. As part of our culture reviews, we have a range of different tools that allow you to take a deep dive into the nuanced and critical elements that combine to form your people and culture. To learn more about one of our favourite tools The Culture Dashboard.

  1. Deliver workplace awareness and training.

Training and awareness aren’t a one size fits all approach. We recommend you look at your online compliance training – useful for new starters and base-level compliance and as a conversation starter. We also believe that face-to-face training tailored for the seniority of the employee, executive or board and your context is key.

How we can help: We can run targeted workshops and 1:1 respect coaching sessions to empower and educate your employees about the importance of respect at work. We also regularly help board directors and executives understand their role in facilitating a respectful culture.

  1. Have conversations

Start having conversations with the Exec team and Board, with senior managers and with employees.

The changes are far-reaching and it’s important to start the conversations now. Be proactive rather than reactive and you’ll find simple things you can start doing now before the legislation changes.

A few simple questions you could use

  1. Are there any aspects of our team culture or work you wish you could change?
  2. Is there anything preventing you from doing your job well?
  3. Are you facing any challenges currently?
  4. What’s something I should consider changing or start doing, as your manager?
  5. What do you love doing the most in your work?
  6. On a scale of 1–10, how happy are you at work?
  7. What’s something I could do to get you to a 10?

We believe a respectful workplace is one where every individual feels safe, supported, and included, and is set up to thrive.

I’m personally looking forward to seeing these changes come to life – for people and for their individual experiences in our workplaces.

As a strong believer and advocate for fairness, inclusion and respect these changes will have long-lasting reach into our workplace culture and a significant impact on our people. And that’s not a bad thing to be looking forward to.

For more resources see the Respect@Work website.