Beyond Dyson Heydon – Can you change your workplace? 6 tips to support change

As a female lawyer, there is no surprise about Dyson Heydon’s reported conduct. This problem has been well-documented.
Beyond Dyson Heydon – Can you change your workplace? 6 tips to support change
10 July 2021

The head of the ACT Law Society, Chris Donohue, writes about the findings against Dyson Heydon AO:

“… The culture of secrecy that allows this kind of misconduct to continue, and to go unreported, is abhorrent. We have a duty as legal practitioners to hold ourselves, and our peers, to higher standards.” “…Too many women who suffered sexual harassment found it easier to leave the law than to report the perpetrator, and that needed to change.”

As a female lawyer, there is no surprise about Dyson Heydon’s reported conduct. This problem has been well-documented.

But instituting change is not easy. Compliance to the law alone isn’t compelling. It requires leadership, strategy and willingness to act. Change is often easier if you can demonstrate what’s in it for the organisation. The key is to deal with sexual harassment and the creation of a culture of inclusivity as inextricably connected. They tend to run together and the sum is greater than the parts.

Change anyone? What does it take to get rid of harassment and bullying, whilst creating an inclusive and supportive culture?

Rule #1: Don’t assume that everyone has the same view of what constitutes a good culture

To assume that a fair, supportive and inclusive environment is universally synonymous with a desired culture is a myth (a good prelude to the next section). Some businesses don’t measure the triple-bottom-line. Some businesses prioritise profit, and people are a means of getting shareholder return. Some consider a competitive and aggressive workplace fertile ground to allow the strongest and the smartest to excel and believe this yields greater profits. In this case, a culture of fairness may be considered nice, but not essential. In professional services context this is where high-yield partners are known as rainmakers and it has been accepted that the rain includes lightning and thunderstorms and collateral damage. If that is your organisation, real change is unlikely.

There are many things that need to change to align a culture. This includes performance indicators and rewards, as well as informal attitudes on what is acceptable.

Rule #2: Where profit and inclusivity align, you will have an easier time

Where human capital and growing the value of the people in the workforce is considered important, profit and inclusivity are more likely to align.

There are businesses in which it is perceived that inclusiveness, safety and fairness are key to profitability. Here, good culture can also mean great profit making, and the exercise of dealing with harassment, bullying and inclusivity is significantly easier.

“If you, as a leader, need to build a sustainably profitable business that relies upon innovation and/or great customer service to succeed, then I’d suggest the following approach: hire the best people you can find, support their development and their creativity, and establish an environment that both demands and rewards great results. I predict you’ll make lots of money.”

– Erika Anderson Proteus.

Rule #3: If you are involved with the change, check that you have backing

Shared vision must be backed by those in power and those in the rank and file. Without this, you are swimming against a tide.

Many have tried to change the culture from the bottom up, or with personal influence. When you are trying to change a culture, to avoid bullying and harassment and to be more inclusive, check if those in power will back the change with budget and action, even at a cost.

If you are a proponent of the slow food movement, then working at McDonald’s will probably never be a good fit for you, or the organisation.

How do we change? The top 3 myths around reporting and conflict

Myth #1: “Our boss has an open-door policy, so we are safe.”

The opening to the “bosses’ door” may very well be made of layers of deflective invisible glass. To young recruits, who are often the subject of harassment, the boss is as approachable as the headmistress at school. Don’t rely on an open door from anyone in the organisation.

Even that universally approachable boss or managing partner – who has unlimited time, great listening skills AND the team somehow holds this to be true – is operating in a post COVID-19 workforce. Leaving the track pants at home to go to the office to walk through the open door will simply not work for much of the workforce. The idea of having an incidental chat on a Zoom meeting or starting a delicate discussion on a Microsoft Teams feed, on a difficult subject like sexual harassment makes an open door even more difficult.

You need pathways that are bespoke, safe and simple.

Myth #2: “My colleagues and partners are lovely and happily married. It cannot happen here.”

Sexual harassment is more about power and less about sex. The difficult cases that are overt bullies are in many ways easier. The more charming, the more indispensable the perpetrator is to the organisation, the harder it becomes to tackle the problem. This means that it is less likely for a person in a junior position to be believed or supported. It’s more likely they will be judged as ‘difficult and outspoken’.

Myth 3 – “Our business is like a family.”

There are many families, family businesses and workplaces that are supportive. But one need only look at the levels of domestic and other abuse that can exist within the family structure to see how dangerous the impact of just one person can be.

Strategies & tips for moving forward

Tip #1: Build a data culture that values early reporting and feedback

Remember, if you don’t provide an effective place to channel internal feedback then the problem will inevitably find its way to social, or mainstream media. This is just a matter of time if there are issues below the surface.

A culture of reporting is about encouraging early and frequent reporting for building a supportive environment.

Use a tool for gathering the good, the bad and the ugly in one place. Data shows that allowing people to remain anonymous vastly increases the chances of identifying a problem. Some tools allow 2-way chat with anonymous reporters to allow you to solve problems without affecting your capacity to get honest feedback.

An anonymous reporting pathway paired with an external contact point is simple and effective way to start early intervention.

Tip #2: Keep multiple tools on hand

For an effective reporting pathway, don’t limit yourself to one tool. Just like your watch, your smartphone and your laptop have different uses, so do data tools. I am unlikely to leave both my smartphone and laptop at home when I go on a business trip.

The equivalent for a supportive workplace culture is:

  • An effective policy (a good starting point, but only 1 piece of the puzzle)
  • A regular cultural survey for good annual benchmarking
  • Whistleblowing software to safeguard against the extremes
  • Training on the role of bystanders in reporting
  • Reporting software for regular, anonymous reporting that provides reports (good, bad and ugly) with trends and analytics to identify problems early.

As with Dyson Heydon, there are often clusters of people affected and there are always early warning signs. Put your organisation in a position to pick up and identify issues early.

Tip #3: Change the way you reward

Review and align performance indicators and rewards, as well as informal attitudes, on what is acceptable. In a professional services environment, the interaction of behaviour and equity points is an important tool in consistent messaging.

Tip #4: Turn into conflict, not away

The best way to spot decomposing food is to follow the smell.

There are a range of matters that fall into bullying, harassment and discrimination. Not all cases are open and shut investigations. There are shades of grey.

Bad behaviour can be structural (overwork, lack of skills) rather than bullying or harassment. A case of ‘conflicting partners’ can point to an area where growth has outstripped structure. A case of ‘warring peers’ often sheds light on areas where the boundary between their individual roles could be clearer. Failed office relationships need attention to stop their spread into something toxic. Sexual harassment and innuendo need to be dealt with early. Locate these points of friction, or emerging issues, and you have a quick and easy tool for finding what needs attention. By turning away, you won’t fix the problem.

There are tried and tested ways for picking up the reports early, spotting trends and triaging effectively. These are your essential tools.

Tip #5: Policies and resources that are simple and familiar

To support an inclusive and supportive culture, the look and feel of the policies and procedures need to be inclusive and supportive. Rigid legalistic documents are a thing of the past.

Make your policies:

  • Plain English (and other languages where needed)
  • Easily accessible
  • Clear and flexible

Most importantly, the policies need to be actionable and actioned. Have the resources to do this and the workflows resolved and ready. Words alone don’t count.

Tip #6: Be prepared to act to build trust

When it comes to acting, there are options.

Formal processes backed by investigations can work well at the pointy end where the problem has already escalated. Decisive action is required in response to the types of matters being reported in the press. A lighter touch is needed to prevent these issues escalating in the first place.

Common sense is about pattern recognition based on experience. A good start to the workflow is a flexible triage process by a person who’s experienced at matching issues with problems. Is this an investigation or a facilitated conversation? Options that feel familiar, a chat with someone holding the space, coaching to assist with resolution, can make people feel confident, empowered and competent to participate.

Establishing a reputation of effective, appropriate and measured intervention builds trust. Trust, in turn, builds culture, high productivity, and retention of valuable people. Which leaves you only with the simple value-based question: “Is this what we want?”

Concluding remarks

If you want to go on a diet, then following a plan and standing on a scale is a good idea. To get fit without injury, use an app or consult a trainer. To un-glitch a computer, call a millennial.

If you want to work out your pathway and workflow, call someone who has seen the unknown unknowns, and can help you spot them. A strategic plan beyond the fables is bound to result in a happy ending.

Are you ready and willing to change?


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