Lynette Hudson had mixed feelings when she delivered Jack, who was six months old, to day care. She was grateful that the State Energy Authority was supportive of working parents. And, after six months on maternity leave, she was keen to return to her job in the financial services branch. None the less, she felt guilty leaving her young son in the care of others.
When Lynette entered the office, she was warmly greeted by other members of the team: Sonia Rajan, Liz McMullen and Ryan Slater. They admired photos of Jack and brought her up to date on the news at the authority.
Malcolm Davidson, manager of the financial services branch, arrived in the office and welcomed Lynette.
In his mid-fifties, Malcolm had been at the authority for 27 years, having started out as a junior clerk. He did not have a university degree, but had received some accounting and financial training over the years. Malcolm had climbed the ladder to a management position largely through patience and seniority.
Malcolm was one of the last of a dying breed of workers who remained in the same organisation for most of their working life. He was reliable and steady and consistently met his targets.
He was also a committed family man and duly admired the photos of Jack. “So, who’s looking after the little one?” Malcolm asked Lynette. She started to tell him about the wonderful day-care centre she had found, but Malcolm cut her off abruptly. “No day-care centre can take the place of a kid’s own mum,” he barked, and changed the subject to work matters.
A little later Lynette went into Malcolm’s office to ask when she would be sent for training on the new computerised financial-management system that had been implemented while she was away.
Malcolm replied: “Actually, Lynette, I wasn’t planning to get you trained on the system just yet. You’ve been away for six months and you need some time to refresh your basic skills. I thought we’d put you back on revenue officer duties for a while.”
Lynette was devastated. She had performed revenue officer duties several years ago, before her promotion.
At lunch, Lynette shared her disappointment with Liz and Sonia. The other two had completed the financial-system course and had their sights set on promotion. Liz said she had applied for a scholarship offered by the authority to undertake some university units in accrual accounting. To be successful, she needed Malcolm’s recommendation; she was still waiting for the outcome.
Sonia confided that she was considering applying for a secondment to a more senior position in another branch. She was also completing an MBA. She would have to tell Malcolm of her plans, and she was worried he would react badly.
Over the next few weeks, Lynette returned to her revenue officer role, but dissatisfaction soon set in. Leaving Jack at child care and going to work many days on a broken night’s sleep began to take their toll. As a single parent, she had to work to support herself and Jack. Genuinely tired and demoralised, Lynette began to use up her sick leave, taking off at least one day a fortnight.
Meanwhile, Sonia took the plunge and applied for the secondment. Her concerns about Malcolm’s reaction were well founded.
“What’s wrong with the job you’ve got here? The secondment carries a lot more responsibility and longer hours. And what happens when it’s finished? Do you think you can just walk back in here and take up where you left off?”
The last remark was too much for Sonia: “Yes, I do, because, according to our human resources policy, my substantive job has to be kept open for me.”
Sonia had the last word, but Malcolm held the whip hand. Over the next four weeks, while Sonia remained in the branch, Malcolm was cold and dismissive towards her. He also began to delegate menial tasks to Sonia and frequently made unwarranted critical remarks about her work.
Sonia’s application was successful. She began counting the days until it was time to move on.
Lynette, Sonia and Liz planned a celebration lunch on Sonia’s last day in the branch. Lynette and Sonia met in a nearby cafe with two friends from human resources and waited for Liz. When Liz arrived 20 minutes late her eyes were red with crying.
“I didn’t get the scholarship for the accrual accounting course,” she told them. “Malcolm recommended Ryan instead.”
The other women were astounded. Liz had given six years of service to the branch, while studying part-time for a degree. In her job as a financial-systems officer, Liz needed the up-skilling far more than Ryan did.
The conversation turned to Malcolm’s attitude to female staff. “His mind is still back in the 1950s, when married women weren’t allowed to work in the public service,” Sonia said. “He doesn’t believe women are worth investing in: we’re just here to earn a bit of pocket money before we have children.”
The two women from HR were aware of Malcolm’s reputation. “Why don’t you lodge a complaint?” one said.
“I wouldn’t dare,” Lynette said. “It would only backfire on us. I’m looking for another job outside the authority.”
Liz expressed a similar view: “It does not pay to rock the boat. Better to find something else and get out.”
The following week, Fran Dragisevich, the authority’s HR manager, made telephone calls to Sonia, Liz and Lynette. She asked them to come to her office at separate times. One by one, the women met Fran, who revealed that she had heard that they might be having problems with career advancement. All three women guessed that their HR friends had whispered something to Fran.
Once Fran had heard their stories, she set up a time for them all to meet in her office.
“It seems to me that there are some real obstacles to career development for women in the financial services branch,” she told them. “Under the authority’s access and equity policy, no one should be denied employment opportunities or career advancement on the grounds of gender. If you feel you’ve been discriminated against because you are female, you have the right to lodge a formal complaint.”
Sonia, Liz and Lynette were uncomfortable with the idea. Fran asked them to think about it. A week later, the three declined to lodge a complaint.
Without a formal complaint, Fran could only monitor the situation.
Over the next few months, Liz and Lynette applied for positions outside the authority. Lynette continued to take time off work, claiming illness, but in some cases she was actually staying home to look after Jack.
The hard-working Liz was given an even bigger workload to compensate for Ryan’s absences while he attended his course. It was galling to Liz, as she was backfilling Ryan’s position to allow him to take advantage of the scholarship she had missed out on.
Sonia’s replacement stayed only three weeks; she had objected to Malcolm’s patriarchal attitude and the low-level tasks he had assigned her.
Fran made her move. She had an off-the-record conversation with Malcolm’s superior, Stuart Wade, the authority’s finance and business services director. The director called Malcolm into a meeting with Fran and raised the concerns about Malcolm’s attitude to female staff. Malcolm was defensive and dismissive, denying that there were any HR problems at all in his branch.
Malcolm called in the union. He accused Fran of making unfair accusations and threatened to take the matter to the Industrial Relations Commission. The union representative asked Fran whether the staff in question were prepared to make a formal complaint; if they were, there might be a case for taking action against Malcolm.
Fran spoke again to Sonia, Lynette and Liz. “I believe you have grounds to state you have been discriminated against on the basis of gender. If you all lodge complaints together, the case will be a lot stronger.”
The women were still reluctant to come forward. With Sonia already out of the branch and the other two hopeful of getting other jobs, they felt it was best simply to remove themselves from Malcolm’s reach. They were afraid of the repercussions if they were not successful in their claim.
Fran could do no more. Eventually Liz and Lynette left the authority. When Sonia’s secondment finished, she refused to go back to Malcolm’s branch. She landed a managerial role in another metropolitan utility. Malcolm remained as manager of financial services until he retired at 60. Ryan succeeded him.
What could the organisation have done to help Malcolm adopt a more equitable attitude to female staff? What could have been done to help the women develop strategies for dealing with Malcolm’s discriminatory behavior? Australian culture has a deep-seated antipathy to the notion of “whistle-blowing”. Is there anything else the organisation could have done to overcome the women’s fear of lodging a complaint?
Proposed solution #1
Carol Turnbull is director of nursing and manager of Kahlyn Private and Fullarton Private Hospitals in Adelaide. She has seven years experience at director level in the private psychiatric health-care area.
These days, equal access and opportunity should be included in the training of all managers. The authority should have offered Malcolm training in equal opportunity and award conditions as well as updating his general management skills.
It is clear from the case study that the authority had policies in place to support equal opportunity, offering maternity leave and career advancement through staff training. However, Malcolm seems not to have been aware of such notions. Staff must be made aware of such policies and act accordingly.
The human resources department must wear some of the blame. Although a good manager will keep up to date with changes to policy and attitudes as a self-requisite, the HR department has a responsibility to ensure that all staff, especially managers, have a full understanding of such policies.
Rather than discussing the problem with Malcolm’s superior once it had occurred, the HR department could have identified it through regular performance appraisals.
Performance appraisals are a useful tool for pinpointing a person’s strengths and weaknesses relevant to their job description and performance.
New parents, regardless of gender, will have extra demands on them; more so for a single parent like Lynette. An awareness of such issues must be balanced against job performance. Given the opportunity, many individuals will decide for themselves to reduce their working hours (when financially possible) if they believe they are not performing adequately, or make changes in their personal life to allow for an improvement at work.
Generally, a better result is achieved if employees are encouraged to make their own decisions regarding work status and career. A manager’s role is to highlight the options and areas of competence, and to steer the employee down (or up) the best path to their goal.
It is important to note that Malcolm was unfair in denying Lynette training to maintain her existing position, and the organisation had an obligation to accept her back at work in her former position. To demote her was unjust, regardless of the intention.
In addition to performance appraisals, staff-satisfaction surveys give a good indication of morale levels. Then the organisation must resolve any problems that surface in such surveys because being aware of a problem, and not taking measures to resolve it, is negligent and dangerous. The innovative manager can often discover needs and develop strategies (for example, child-care facilities at work) through such surveys.
It seems that the authority had been successful in employing eager and competent workers. To maintain that level of enthusiasm is a difficult task. Succession planning would be a vital component of achieving that, along with continuing education and career advancement. These issues are best examined at appraisal time, when mutually agreed goals can be set and reviewed.
As is often the case, there seemed to be a blurring of roles of the HR department and management at the authority. A manager’s role today is very much HR oriented, with the result that companies with an HR department too often under-utilise it. Advice and assistance to Malcolm from Fran (the HR manager) could well have avoided the loss of valuable employees, in whom much time and training had been invested.
A manager is also responsible for monitoring departmental trends: sick-leave patterns, productivity levels and morale. Had Malcolm been trained in these areas and was agreeable to feedback through staff-satisfaction surveys, for example, he could have noted the unrest and taken steps to improve the situation. Had he been trained in these areas, and had chosen to continue with his management style, then an appraisal by his superiors would have highlighted the problem and an appropriate course of action could have been taken.
If, despite the above suggestions being implemented, Malcolm’s behavior did not improve, the HR department could encourage awareness of the authority’s policies by displaying them around the workplace where every employee could see them. Staff meetings with HR department representation could also encourage open communication.
Proposed solution #2
Gerry Davies, MBus (HRMgt), AFAIM, is the director of Gerry Davies & Associates, consulting in training and development and document development
It might be hard to believe that such blatant sexual discrimination as that displayed by Malcolm Davidson could be allowed to continue in a public organisation in 2000. However, to dismiss the case study as over the top would be wrong. In her 1999 Harsh Realities, an educative kit of case studies, Susan Halliday, Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, expressed her view that one of the best ways to learn is to be exposed to the real-life experiences of others.
Malcolm’s case is similar to some of the case studies documented by Halliday, so we may assume it to reflect reality.
What could the organisation have done to help Malcolm adopt a more equitable attitude to female staff?
We cannot assume that Malcolm is ignorant of anti-discrimination issues. Sonia refers to the authority’s human-resources policy when she challenges Malcolm: “my substantive job has to be kept open for me”. And Fran’s monitoring of the situation suggests that the authority has an anti-discrimination program in place, although perhaps not effectively administered.
The authority must be able to show that it took “reasonable steps” to prevent discrimination, or else be held legally liable for the actions of its employees. We are told that Malcolm, during 27 years, had progressed from junior clerk to manager and that, along the way, he had received some accounting and financial training. There is no suggestion that he received any managerial training, which might have equipped him with the skills needed to deal fairly and sensitively with staff.
From the evidence presented, the authority should be relieved that Liz, Lynette and Sonia did not make a complaint, as the Anti-discrimination Board could have held the authority, not Malcolm, liable for his actions.
The offending employee may not be liable for legal penalties if the organisation has not taken all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination. This could mean that the authority would have to pay compensation to employees who had suffered discrimination.
The authority must get serious about anti-discrimination. Is Malcolm’s case an isolated one? The risks and costs to the authority must be considered.
The cost of losing an experienced junior-to-middle manager due to dissatisfaction with EEO/harassment issues has been assessed at $50,000. So, in causing the resignation of Liz, Lynette, and Sonia, Malcolm cost the authority $150,000. In addition, it was costing his branch $1625 per employee for every 10 days of stress-induced leave taken.
Had Lynette, Liz and Sonia made an official complaint, it could have cost the authority another $35,000 in salary and lost productivity for each employee involved in the grievance, or in sorting out the grievance.
The authority should take immediate steps to minimise the risk exposure by:
- Reviewing and implementing a set of clear, accessible policies.
- Implementing a compulsory training program for managers and staff.
- Putting in place a grievance procedure.
- Establishing a network of contact officers to maintain awareness.
The authority should be aware of the benefits of settling grievances before they go to the Anti-discrimination Board. Although costly, a good grievance policy can save money by providing a means of settling disputes before they get to the lawsuit stage.
It may be too late for Malcolm to change his attitude, but at least he should be formally counselled about his attitude to staff. He should be made to understand the costs involved in employee dissatisfaction. Being a finance manager he might better appreciate the situation when it is explained in dollar terms.
The authority should have a clearly advertised and explained anti-discrimination code of conduct. Malcolm should be in no doubt that, if this code is broken, he may be held responsible for any costs incurred by any complaints made to the Anti-discrimination Board.
What could have been done to help Liz, Lynette and Sonia?
The fact that these three employees were either not aware or had no confidence in the authority’s anti-discrimination policy has allowed this situation to develop. For example, had Lynette known when she returned from maternity leave that she had the right to return to a job fitting her experience, she might have made a grievance complaint, which would not have been as difficult as making a formal complaint to the Anti-discrimination Board.
Liz could have made a grievance complaint against Malcolm for not being selected for the scholarship.
Sonia could have made a grievance complaint against Malcolm for his attitude to her after she told him about wanting a secondment.
Staff awareness of rights is crucial to an effective anti-discrimination policy. Education from the induction stage and affirmative-action training would help employees like Liz, Lynette and Sonia to stand up for their rights.