Clarity, accountability and zero tolerance: Sombre lessons for leaders emerging from Parliament House

Scott-Morrison

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Source: AAP/Mick Tsikas.

The dust has not yet settled and the future is certainly not written when it comes to Brittany Higgins’ treatment at Parliament House.

While many things remain unclear, others are obvious. The most obvious is that rape should never happen. There is good reason it is acknowledged as a heinous crime, and given its damaging consequences, it is rightly surrounded by expert specialists — trauma and rape counsellors, emergency workers, police, detectives, prosecutors and lawyers. 

That baseline aside, amongst all we have in front of us at the moment, there are some threads of significance relevant to all leaders and organisations. The five most important so far are these: 

  1. First step is always to care for those involved;
  2. You need more than a process – even a good process;
  3. You need to resolve claims and not leave them lie;
  4. You need to understand what happened, not only to support those involved but equally to prevent it happening again; and 
  5. Against all odds, you need to hold an open mind.

Let me just put down a few words on each of those. They’re all critical lessons. 

First step is always to care for those involved

For reasons I’ve never understood, leaders often jump to defend the process, a colleague, the organisation, or a particular reputation. But in the cold hard light of these situations, always remember to be human. 

Listen to the story, or stories. Hear them. Care.

Don’t pass them an EAP card, and tell them you’ll talk tomorrow or next week. Sit down and be deeply present for the person facing you. If there has been trauma and you are to receive this story, then you need to be the best version of a human being you can be. Empathetic, for sure, but deeply caring is better. Ask what they need, and don’t let them go until you can hand them to someone who can care for them better than you – a family member, a partner, a close friend, or an expert. 

Organisations, processes, even reputations, will all be there tomorrow, and my experience is that the facts never change. They sit and wait to be found. And they certainly never change because you cared.

First lesson: Listen and care. Walk in their shoes.  

You need more than a process – even a good process. You need knowledge and experience 

There is much chatter about the process, and there will be an investigation to sort that out, but you need much more. You need leaders, and perhaps every person, to know what to do, and in very serious cases, who they can call when they need greater expertise. 

In 25 years in this field, I have dealt with all manner of horrible things, but only four times have I dealt with rape or sexual assault. Thankfully, it is rare. And if you think your leaders or your team will know what to do when they are faced with one, well, that’s a little delusional. This is not innate knowledge.

My training and experience give me a better baseline than the vast majority, but on each of those four occasions, I leaned on and learnt a lot from specialists – trauma counsellors and police. In each of those cases, I became almost a layperson supporting the victim, after I had rightly called in experts. 

So, beyond your process, however excellent it may be, make sure your team knows what their role is, and who to contact when things are more serious than they are confident to deal with. In serious cases, there simply cannot be a ‘didn’t know what to do’ defence. 

Second lesson: Train and equip your leaders properly. 

You need to resolve claims and not leave them lie

I am yet to deal with a serious bullying or harassment case, let alone an assault case, that sorted itself out over time. They don’t. They get worse. 

I remember dealing with a terrible bullying case, which had left a person a shell of themselves and on the verge of suicide. As we reviewed what had happened in the 12 weeks since the claim, the leader explained in an amazing level of detail what they had done for every day of those 12 weeks. In their mind, the details somehow erased the timeline. 

An hour is a long time in trauma. A day is an eternity. Twelve weeks, whatever the explanation, is simply unacceptable. When that stretches out even further, and it’s left unresolved for years, well that’s where everyone is in a space where everything goes wrong. Pain and trauma lead to scars. The details of stories and memories blur. Witnesses forget. 

We use this expression: sweep the worst of things under the carpet, and you’ll be walking on eggshells forever.  

Third lesson: Time matters. Do something. 

You need to understand what happened, not only to support those involved but equally to prevent it happening again 

There is always an emphasis on ‘exactly what happened in an event’ so as facts are confirmed, perpetrators can be punished and victims acknowledged, but there is a second equally important reason to know what happened, and that is to avoid it in the future. These sorts of things rarely happen in a vacuum. Instead, they are aided and abetted by many other things. 

Our expression is ‘zero tolerance is not just a policy’ and that’s the truth. 

Zero tolerance is a culture. A commitment by ever person to zero tolerance for behaviour that hurts others. You need capable and confident leaders, for sure, but the reality is that in a zero tolerance culture, everyone has a role to play. Everyone has a voice. Everyone is committed and clear on how to respond. 

It’s about more than any policy. In good culture, everyone takes their role seriously. 

As soon as you’ve resolved the issue, make sure it can never happen again. 

Fourth lesson: The incident AND then culture. In that order.  

Against all odds, hold an open mind

This is the hardest one to write, and sometimes the hardest to do. It is also the least popular. No one ever tweeted, “Keep an open mind”, but they should.

Even when you think you know a whole story, you sometimes only know a perspective. That doesn’t make it wrong, and I would always say ‘believe the victim’, but even they may not know their whole story. As we’ve seen with the Canberra case, the exact words of the woman at the centre were: “I’ve only been recently made aware of key elements of my own story”. 

As a leader, if you’re charged with resolving serious issues, you do have to keep an open mind. The first story is the first story, but it may not be the complete story. Witnesses add dimensions, perspectives, details and understanding, as does everyone involved. 

Sometimes the first story is the whole story. Listen to the stories and keep an open mind until you know what to be true. When you’re charged with responding to a potentially terrible situation, you are not judge and juror – they will come. You’re not the investigator – they will come. You’re not the lawyer – their time will come. You are not the storyteller – that belongs to the person who’s story (or stories) it is to tell. In that first instance, you are just first receiver, and first carer, and you do everyone a great disservice if you imagine yourself to be any more than that. 

Fifth lesson: No matter what you hear, there will be more to come. 

I end with simply hoping these small lessons better equip someone to handle the impossible, while all the while hoping you never have to. 

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