Balancing the Act: ADCQ newsletter -

Reasonable steps, how many, how big and how reasonable?

This article first appeared in Balancing the Act Issue 15, October 2002 pages 4 to 5.

While discrimination, sexual harassment, racial and/or religious vilification can occur almost anywhere, it is most likely to happen at work. Under the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (the Act) employers can be held liable for the unlawful actions of their workers, unless they can show they have taken reasonable steps to prevent it. Although reasonable steps aren't listed under the Act, it's generally accepted that there are three main issues to address: policy, training and complaint processes.

Expectations on employers will, of course, depend on a range of variables. These include:

  • size of the organisation
  • structure of the organisation
  • type of work done
  • workforce profile (gender, age and ethnicity)
  • any history of discrimination, sexual harassment and/or vilification
  • relevant provisions in industrial awards
  • working hours and level of supervision
  • other relevant factors e.g. geographic isolation, duties that require `live-in' arrangements or physical layouts of workplaces.

While all employers, regardless of the size or type of workforce are encouraged to take these reasonable steps, it can't be stressed enough that what's reasonable in one workplace or one situation, may not be in another. It will vary from one employer to another, and from case to case.

So, as an employer, what do you do and how do you do it? What's the first step? How can you tell if it's working? And is it worth the effort?

Dealing with the last question first, the simple answer is `yes', it is worth it. Why?

  • discrimination, sexual harassment and vilification is against the law
  • employers are legally liable for any of this behaviour that happens at work, unless they can show they've taken reasonable steps to prevent it happening
  • the costs of ignoring this sort of behaviour can be significant - not only in terms of settling complaints, but when you look at issues such as productivity, reputation in the sector, staff turnover, absenteeism, morale, publicity and workplace health and safety issues.
  • the benefits of reducing or even eliminating these behaviours can also be significant - some companies have costed the benefits of improvements in productivity, reputation, staff turnover, morale, absenteeism, publicity and workplace health and safety can actually put a dollar value on it - a high dollar value on it.
  • a discrimination-free workforce is a better workforce from any point of view.

Policy - How do I go about it?

For starters, you might want to give us a call and get a copy of our `model policy', which can be modified to suit any workplace.

If you want to develop or review your own policy, you might want to use the following as a checklist:

Does your policy -

  • define discrimination, sexual harassment and vilification?
  • advise that the company will not tolerate this behaviour?
  • explain that everyone has the right to work in a safe workplace?
  • have the support of the CEO?
  • include reference to anti-discrimination legislation?
  • give a list of types of discrimination?
  • give some examples?
  • mention the responsibility of staff and managers for appropriate behaviour?
  • refer to contact officers and their role?
  • include mention of training and information about how to lodge a complaint?
  • give an undertaking that any complaints will be taken seriously?

Is the policy -

  • the result of consultation with staff and unions?
  • regularly distributed and promoted to all staff?
  • reviewed every so often?
  • available in other languages if needed?
  • worded simply and clearly?

If you've got a `yes' for all or most of these questions, your policy and the implementation of it is off to a good start.

Training - implementing the policy

Information sessions for all staff, both on the policy and on anti-discrimination law, are highly recommended. A short session could include an overview of legislation, a look at the policy, tips on how to prevent discrimination happening, and information about how staff can make a complaint.

We'd suggest that awareness training be done for all staff, and that managers and supervisors undertake a longer session which focuses more on their responsibilities.

This training will need to be refreshed at times, because of new staff coming into the organisation, a review of the policy, changes to the law, or as a commitment by the company.

Our Commission runs awareness and training sessions, usually for a fee. As experts in the legislation, we can tailor a course to take account of your policy, and can provide a different emphasis for staff or managers. Because of this expertise in the area, we can encourage not just knowledge, but understanding of discrimination issues. We also run training courses for contact officers and investigating complaints.

Complaint Procedures

Like policies, complaint procedures need to be written clearly and simply, and distributed to all staff. We also recommend they mention these issues:

  • the company's commitment to a fair process
  • the process for lodging a complaint - informality is recommended
  • confidentiality of complaint lodgement
  • timeframes for investigating complaints
  • the seriousness with which complaints will be handled
  • who's responsible for dealing with complaints
  • training for the person investigating the complaint
  • range of outcomes possible for complaint resolution
  • what records will be kept, how, and by whom
  • how complaint data, including the outcomes, will be monitored
  • the contact officer and their role
  • victimisation

A user-friendly and trusted process for dealing with complaints is a good process.

How do you know it's working? There are a few things you can do to check the effect of your policies and procedures. These include:

  • conducting a survey of staff about issues at work
  • doing exit interviews with staff to check their views of the workplace
  • using feedback from contact officers and other networks to see how things are going
  • monitoring data from complaints, such as type of behaviour, outcome etc and other information which doesn't identify individuals
  • perhaps running a confidential hotline at work to test progress.

While a whole range of other issues could be addressed here, such as how to monitor policies or how to use the complaints process, or what qualities you are looking for in a contact officer, space won't permit. In the next edition, we will address some of these points.