Beyond the blind eye

In light of the Jenkins report, CCA CEO David Crosbie issues a challenge to every charity leader to actively support those that call out inappropriate behaviour or misconduct within their own organisations, Pro Bono News, 2 December 2021.

Beyond the blind eye, Pro Bono News, 2 December 2021

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” – Albert Einstein

Many years ago I was asked to help out at a local high school experiencing problems with year 7 students sniffing petrol during their lunch break, coming back into the school, disrupting classes and causing problems. I spent some time informally talking with the students and discovered that a petrol station on the corner near the school was selling the students 50 cent plastic bags of petrol. When I confronted the owner of the petrol station, he vigorously defended his actions as legal, claimed ignorance about what the kids were doing with the petrol, and argued they must have been using it for their model cars. I knew, and he knew that I knew, that he had chosen to support petrol sniffing by 13-year-old school students. It turned out many students and some adults were aware of the petrol sales, but didn’t want to upset the petrol station owner who was quite intimidatory and powerful in the community. Following my intervention, the sale of small amounts of petrol in plastic bags ceased. (I should note the school implemented a range of interventions with the students and their families – cutting off the convenient supply of pre-packaged petrol was not the only action taken.)

I retell this story to emphasise one key learning. It is invariably the case that only when bad behaviour is called out does it stop. Turning a blind eye allows misconduct to flourish.

In the Kate Jenkins Human Rights Commission Set the Standard report into Parliament released this week, one of the most telling lines for me was the description of a “culture in which the individuals responsible for misconduct are often widely known and their behaviour deliberately overlooked, minimised or tolerated”.

It could be argued that the most powerful reaction to repeated misconduct and discrimination – or in this case bullying and sexual harassment – is to turn a blind eye. By looking away, not seeing what we have seen, not acting, not speaking up, not acknowledging what has happened, we offer a powerful endorsement of that behaviour. And that is what has been happening in our Parliament.

The blind eye approach works well enough on its own, but it can also be quite powerfully paired with the hand washing approach or not my responsibility. When confronted with the kind of disturbing workplace culture outlined in the Jenkins report, one of the most often used defences by workplace leaders is to argue we are all responsible (“we need to share the blame – not put it all on me”). A second approach is to pretend it is only about the individuals involved – only the perpetrators can be held responsible (“I didn’t do it so don’t blame me”). 

Grace Tame, our brave and impressive Australian of the Year, made clear this week who she thinks is responsible for workplace culture: “It rots from the top. Parliament’s ecosystem of abuse has been revealed. 15 minutes after the 500-page review launched today, Scott was already claiming it’s a safer workplace than when Brittany was there. This, days after he coercively orchestrated the ambush of Bridget Archer.” (Government MP Bridget Archer asked not to meet with the prime minister at the time, but it went ahead anyway.)

It is true that we all share in the responsibility to maintain a safe and respectful workplace, but it is also true that the senior leaders and executive are very clearly responsible for owning workplace culture and addressing failures that make people feel less than supported in their roles.

The current government has been in power for over eight years and the leader of that government cannot and should not wash their hands of any responsibility for workplace culture.

Another enabling factor in workplace misconduct, sexual harassment and assault is to punish those who call out the problems. A young woman raped in a government minister’s office not only loses her job and her career, but is attacked for putting herself in a vulnerable position. Brittany Higgins has risen above a lot of the criticism, and helped drive the need for reform, but at what cost? 

A challenge to every charity leader is to actively support those that call out inappropriate behaviour or misconduct within our own organisations. While this might appear obvious to say, it can sometimes be much harder to put into practice. Amongst other provisions, charities should be aware of their obligations to provide appropriate internal complaints procedures and whistleblower provisions.

Another point of reference for charities and other organisations is to consider how best to manage some of the identified drivers and risk factors of workplace bullying, sexual harassment, and discrimination in workplaces. These factors include; power imbalances, gender inequality, lack of accountability, entitlement and exclusion, unclear and inconsistent standards of behaviour, leadership deficit, overpowering workplace dynamics (e.g. win at all costs), social conditions at work (e.g. long hours away from home), employment structures and systems (e.g. who is rewarded). 

Turning a blind eye in our workplaces is one thing, turning a blind eye in our community is another. 

Charities have a critical role to play as advocates for those experiencing discrimination, abuse, bullying and other forms of misconduct in workplaces and in communities. Many charities actively engage in the spaces where misconduct occurs and their role is not just to call it out, but also seek some form of justice. Racial discrimination, slavery, domestic violence, sexual assault, bullying, discrimination against the disabled and others, animal welfare, treatment of prisoners, refugees, justice, the list goes on. Charities champion the calling out of misconduct. It is at the heart of some of the most valuable advocacy work charities do.

There is one other critical factor in reducing all forms of workplace misconduct, a factor that goes beyond averted eyes, washed hands, abrogated responsibilities, and protecting the truth tellers. Very little will be achieved if we do not take affirmative action.

In calling for the Parliament to act on the recommendations in her report, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said: “This is an opportunity for the leaders of our country to transform Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces to become what they already should be: workplaces where expected standards of behaviour are modelled, championed and enforced, where respectful behaviour is rewarded and in which any Australian, no matter their gender, race, sexual orientation, disability status or age, feels safe and welcome to contribute.”

There is no place for turning a blind eye to misconduct within organisations and especially within charities. 

Charities should be places where we model, champion, and enforce the values of respect and safety for all. This only happens if there is a real commitment to ensure the values at the core of most charities are embedded in our structures, processes and relationships.

When we choose to call out misconduct in our organisations and our communities, when we choose to challenge bullying and discrimination, we are not just making a difference, we are enacting the fundamental values of charity.

Read on Pro Bono News: beyond-the-blind-eye