Businesses have been urged to set up codes of conduct as quickly as possible, or risk being blind-sided by employees who use offensive or derogatory language and then claim they had no idea what they were doing was wrong.
The warning has been sparked by a case in the Melbourne Magistrate’s court, which fined a businessman $50,000 after hearing he subjected his employees to “disgusting and appalling” behaviour that included death threats and verbal abuse.
Magistrate Hugh Radford heard that Kevin Andrews, who owned a laundry in Mildura, told employees that one “should have been drowned at birth”, and called others “big fat bush pig” and “wog”. He also told one employee that a rapist was “waiting” for her, and that women were “dogs”.
Redford said Andrews’ behaviour was “simply unacceptable and cannot be tolerated in a modern society.
But the incident highlights the serious topic of workplace behaviour, says E&I People Solutions co-founder Abiramie Sathiamoorthy. Many businesses have an employee or two, or even a manager, who doesn’t seem to understand the concept of acceptable workplace behaviour.
Letting that go unchecked can create big problems, she warns.
“Step one is that you definitely need to have a solid code of conduct in place that reflects the culture,” says Sathiamoorthy.
She notes that different workplaces can tolerate different levels of discussion, and although it should never be offensive or rude, this can reflect different workplace rules.
“What we need to remember is that the intention behind a comment doesn’t matter, it’s the outcome of that comment. That’s why spelling out even basic things like a code of conduct, or responsibility to other employees, is important.”
“It’s important that you bring up bullying, and that if you do notice it that employees point it out so it doesn’t occur.”
The other benefit of a code of conduct is that it provides a reference point for any future behaviour. Otherwise, an employee could perhaps use an ignorance defence, claiming they didn’t know what or wasn’t acceptable.
This type of argument has been used before. Last year, a Linfox employee who was fired for making unsavoury comments on Facebook said he didn’t know that his words would come under workplace policy.
It’s a slightly different case, but Sathiamoorthy says the principle is the same – employees should have no reason to believe their abuse behaviour is condoned.
“The team members need to be really clear in terms of what their expectations are, and also something like pulling people up on it in the first place is a good first move.”
“Especially, if it’s a first time offence and not as serious. You don’t want to have that type of culture in your business.”