Managing discrimination

The bottom line is that federal and state anti-discrimination laws, as well as the Fair Work Act 2009, make certain types of workplace behaviour against the law.

What is discrimination? It is when one person is treated less fairly than others because of their background or characteristics. That covers behaviour in the workplace, promotions and hiring of people.

Federal laws protect people from discrimination on the basis of their race, gender, pregnancy or marital status and breastfeeding, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, religion, political opinion, social origin, medical record, criminal record, trade union activity or a person’s obligations as a parent or carer.

Discrimination can be direct or indirect, and it also includes sexual harassment and bullying.

These laws cover full time, part time and casual employees, probationary employees, apprentices, and people employed for a fixed period of time or task.

It is also unlawful to refuse employment to any of these people based on those attributes.

Companies found to be discriminating face massive fines. The maximum penalty for a contravention of the unlawful discrimination protections is $63,000 per contravention for a corporation, and $12,600 per contravention for an individual.

It’s therefore incumbent on the company to have policies and measures in place to deal with discrimination when it occurs in the workplace. They would otherwise be in trouble with the law.

The company has to make sure those policies are up to date.

Those policies need to have a clear indication that unlawful behaviour will not be tolerated and they need to give examples of the kinds of behaviour which are unacceptable. The policies should also spell out ways employees might manage discrimination and sexual harassment. They should also detail how complaints will be handled and escalated when necessary. They need to provide protections against victimisation and have flexible working arrangements for parents and carers.

When complaints are made, they need to be handled promptly and sensitively. Companies also need to respect the confidentiality of the people involved in the complaint. Needless to say, that includes all parties.

The complaints need to be handled with fairness and impartiality, right through the appropriate resolution process. That means having the right people handle it. It’s also important to remember that until a complaint is investigated and decision made, it is an allegation, not a fact.

Ideally, the complaint should be raised the employee’s nominated supervisor. Attempts to resolve such claims should be made locally and informally.

However, where the attempt to resolve a complaint informally, fails, or where it can’t be resolved locally and informally, staff should be allowed to submit a formal complaint to Human Resources.

Where the complaint is found to be true, there should be counselling and education to address the issue. Dismissal should not be the first option and dismissal is not always an appropriate or lawful response.

Supervisors and managers should be trained on how to respond to discrimination in the workplace.

And the workers should also be educated about discrimination and shown how to respect each other’s differences.

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