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Challenging workplace culture norms


In 2021 it is confronting to see how badly a significant employer has handled the serious allegations of a young female employee.

I will not be discussing the alleged assault in Parliament House itself, but there are non-disputed facts surrounding the allegations that raise questions about the norms of the workplace culture.

It would be foolish to assume that something like this could only occur in politics. Every situation is unique, however there are comparable stories in many types of organisations.

In the spirit of “choose to challenge”, I will challenge some undiscussable norms in workplaces that can influence the actions of management and bystanders. The relationship between workplace norms and actions of a perpetrator is a significant separate topic of its own.

Undiscussable norms

Despite what any Values statement or Code of Conduct says about respect and safety, employees’ conduct is strongly driven by the undiscussable norms their workplace. These generally operate at a subconscious level. For example, a common norm in many Australian workplaces is not “dobbing” on your workmates.

The people handling a complaint will usually act in accordance with unspoken norms. In many organisations, managers tend to default to a norm of protecting the organisation first and the complainant second even if they are technically following their policies and procedures. The evidence from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse suggests this norm was prevalent in churches and religious institutions.

As such, complainants often report feeling that the organisation has treated them as a messy problem that they would rather not have to deal with. This was certainly Ms Higgins’ perception as she stated in an interview that “I was just this sudden problem for her. That’s what I felt like. I felt like they were ticking a box.”

For employees who witness harassing or discriminatory conduct (or who suspect that this is occurring), there are norms about whether or not they should intervene.

We know from bystander intervention studies that people will only act if:

  • they have confidence in their capacity to act,
  • they think they will have a positive impact on the situation, and
  • they feel that have the support of their peers and management.

In many organisations, the undiscussable norm is that bystanders who intervene will not be supported by either management or peers. As an example, we do not know why the security guards at Parliament House did not act more proactively that evening, but it suggests an undiscussed norm that their intervention would not be supported.

How do we change these norms?

To change these norms, my advice to employers is to discuss the undiscussable. Make the implicit explicit. If there are norms that stop managers and employees from challenging or properly dealing with sexist, racist, harassing, or criminal conduct bring this out in the open.

Give employees and managers the highest confidence to act and genuinely support them when they do.  A positive and inclusive workplace can only exist when there is strong alignment of values, policies, norms, words and actions.

Choose to challenge | IWD2021

In the lead up to International Women’s Day 2021, we have asked some of our incredible Mapien women to prepare a series of articles.  From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge and call out inequality. #IWD2021 #choosetochallenge


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Written by
Katy Russell
Mapien’s in-house expert in conflict resolution, Katy uses a strategic approach to diagnose the root causes of conflict and develops inventive, yet practical advice to manage difficult situations.