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Workplace dinosaurs have nowhere to hide

It was once as regular as the annual corporate Festive season card. Some drunk employee would photocopy part of their anatomy, proposition a colleague or abuse the boss at the end-of-year knees up and word would gradually filter out about the ugly yet familiar aftermath.

 

" There aren't many prominent businesses now which could get away with glossing over or ignoring overt examples of sexist behaviour."
Catherine Fox, Freelance journalist

It doesn't happen quite as much these days. Most companies have become pretty explicit in warning employees to avoid shenanigans at work events, not only to avoid lawsuits and a trashing on Facebook but because expectations about behaviour on the job or at corporate drinks are changing.

The recent headlines in Australia about boorish sexist behaviour and comments to young women by powerful men in politics and sport (and the loud reaction by apologists) are a timely sign we need more not less of this shift in workplace norms and practices.

What happened between former Liberal federal minister Jamie Briggs and a young woman public servant in a Hong Kong bar in November and the on-air comments made by West Indian cricketer Chris Gayle to sports reporter Mel McLaughlin had some key ingredients in common.

The men involved were far more powerful (and in Briggs' case, older) than the women and both incidents were essentially occurring in the course of work or a work-related event. And despite the outcry from a vocal cohort that these were minor distractions or an excuse to call in the fun police, in both cases the women involved clearly felt uncomfortable.

There's been an avalanche of mainstream and social media attention, complete with rolling commentary from across the board.

It's another good reason why businesses with reputation management in mind are taking a more serious stance on standards today.

BLINK OF AN EYE

There aren't many prominent businesses now which could get away with glossing over or ignoring overt examples of sexist behaviour when bad news is observed and spread far and wide in the blink of an eye.

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

Businesses can no longer get away with ignoring overt examples of sexism. (Photo: Shutterstock).

Obviously that's not to say examples of poor form have been eradicated. Humans will be humans and what happens informally is difficult to police. But in meetings and open forums or offices, fewer and fewer business environments would allow sexual banter or discriminatory comments to flow unchecked.

Those who believe the recent outcry means Australia is at risk of an overdose of political correctness fail to grasp the dynamics of work have changed forever, just like the society in which businesses operate.

The workforce in Australia is nearly 48 per cent female, multicultural and generational and the boss is no longer automatically a white, middle-aged man.

Let's be clear too: when a young woman has attention drawn to her appearance or sex appeal it isn't just embarrassing or a bit of fun. It's a reminder no matter how well she does her job, how she looks is what gives her value and defines her. It trivialises her in front of her peers and, in the case of a TV reporter, her entire audience.

Women, as former Australian netball captain and media commentator Liz Ellis said recently, have to work much harder to be taken seriously. That's not just an irritation but a major hurdle and double standard.

As organisational psychologists have long pointed out, everyone cares about how they and their work is regarded because it's in the workplace important factors like income and status are determined.

The human resources policies to set standards for respectful behaviour have to be applied and complainants supported, however.

While not every workplace harassment incident has of the same level of gravity and the repercussions should be adjusted accordingly, a genuine apology rather than a laughing brush off is a meaningful first step. It sends an important message about norms and stifles the idea humourless women are to blame.

THE REAL STORY

Lamenting the good old days when this kind of thing went under the radar ignores the real story. These sexist 'jokes', compliments and lunges at the bar were always offensive but women had little choice but to put up and shut up. It's enormously encouraging to see that is no longer the case.

Of course it would be ideal if these incidents hadn't occurred at all but that's the silver lining. Young women are far less likely to let this kind of behaviour and their humiliation get swept under the carpet. They are standing up for themselves despite the inevitable backlash they face. And many Australians are right behind them.

Privilege is invisible to those that have it, as US gender expert Michael Kimmel says. And some of those in powerful roles can be impervious or cavalier about the impact their disregard for the basic rules of decency and casual sexism has on those further down the chain.

Basic respect and courtesy is not political correctness. It should be a given in workplaces, just as it should be in the community - because if it is, everyone, ultimately, is better off.

And while there's much more work to be done by organisations in raising the bar in the workplace, the policies in place and the rise of social media are making it clear old fashioned sexists and power abusers can run but they can't hide for long anymore.

Journalist and author Catherine Fox is one of Australia's leading commentators on women and the workforce. She was for many years the Australian Financial Review's highly acclaimed Corporate Woman columnist and deputy editor of AFR Boss magazine.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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