Employee safety should be a top priority at work. Here’s how clear policies and procedures can help

Brittany Higgins women safety at work

Brittany Higgins after meeting the Prime Minister in 2021. Source: AAP/Dean Lewins.

One of the common threads from the high-profile cases of both Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins was the role of power.

At its heart, power is the ability to change someone else’s day or life, including at work. That might be through being really kind, or in the case of domestic violence, harassment, or bullying, making someone else feel unsafe. People aren’t working because they don’t need money.

In workplaces, the role of power tends to be with the manager, or a colleague, and not with the employee. But the workplace needs employees to function. In the current environment where employees are refusing to stay in places they don’t feel safe, and will litigate to get out if necessary, something that can really help is having really clear policies and procedures in place.

Initial, and continued, training of staff does not mean only showing them the fire exits. It means having policies that set out expectations, and outcomes.

It’s important to recognise that there are often different standards, because what one person takes as a joke, another person will interpret differently. But to simplify, if you wouldn’t say it to a child you don’t really know, don’t say it in the workplace.

You also can’t ignore the role of intersectionality in harassment, bullying or sexual assault. What might feel inappropriate to one person because of their gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, family status, race, social extraction can be very different to someone else’s.

To give a personal example: I hate it when people touch me. If I know you it’s fine, sometimes, but if I don’t and you touch me I’ll say, “please don’t”, or move away to the opposite side of the room from you if possible. Sometimes this hasn’t been possible, but I will always try to say it to a manager if I can. I’ve been in the position where another employee didn’t respect this but I couldn’t make a complaint because I didn’t have the power too. I never gave consent.

As an employer, it’s your duty of care to have a safe working environment. Do this by having people trained in how to handle the complaints, and have a person who might not necessarily be the manager, but is still qualified, to take the complaint listed. There’s various government funded training programs for this so there isn’t an excuse.

There may be different standards for different workplaces but if an incident occurs, the rules generally are:

  • Support the employee in making a claim to police if they think it is necessary. That means providing access to call logs, and emails if needed. Set this out in your initial policies;

  • Set out a warning system with a chain of query;

  • Make sure that you have standard operating procedures so other people can cover a role in the event an employee needs to take leave for any reason. It might be just two pages of quick access links, for example;

  • Define what misconduct is, allowing that if it was endangering, or it’s gross, and that if there is long term behaviour, the person involved may be required to take leave or dismissed during the course of an investigation;

  • Give the accused a chance to discuss the issue. Then make a decision. This might end up being just a warning, but inform the victim in writing of the decision; and

  • If an employee is being dismissed because of misconduct, do not then hire them back as a contractor later on.

It is essential for all workplaces to have clear policies around expectations, a reporting structure, and repercussions (including warnings) if these are broken, in order to make sure every employee has a safe workplace.

The author of this article wishes to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.


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