Launch of Good Practice, Good Business

Speech by Federal Sex Discrimination Pru Goward,

1 December 2004, Sydney


Firstly, I would like to pass on apologies from the President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, The Hon. John von Doussa QC, who is presently interstate and unable to be here today. It goes without saying that he entirely endorses the purpose of this project and believes there should be more of it.

We're here today because we want to get it right. We wouldn't be human if we didn't make wrong judgements about people. How they look, their ethnic background, their age, physical disability, what sex they are. Somewhere in the human brain, despite the voices of our education, these things count. Mostly they count irrationally.

As a result, not only are these judgements likely to be wrong ethically and in fact, they are also wrong legally.

Australian laws protecting people from racial, sexual, disability and age discrimination mean it is unlawful to discriminate in a whole range of areas - such as employment, provision of services and housing. This is not because our federal legislators have an unrealistically noble view of the world, but because such discrimination is damaging. It doesn't do either Australian society or the Australian economy any good.

It diminishes us as a people, it diminishes us as an economy.

For employers these laws can be a minefield. Especially for small business, who don't have a lot of time to read law books.

Remember, anti discrimination laws have not been the work of noble organisations like the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, but instead the hard headed men and women of the federal parliament.

It is they who have believed these laws are necessary, in much the same way that bankruptcy laws, restrictive trade practice laws, industrial health and occupational safety laws and tax laws have also been deemed necessary. Necessary to correct for the human fallibility of judgement, necessary to ensure the better workings of the market, necessary to ensure the peace and equanimity of society and fundamentally, necessary to ensure that people have confidence in the democratic institution of government.

So today's launch of Good Practice, Good Business, is very much about promotion of those sound business practices which lie at the heart of Australian competitive advantage. It goes without saying they also lie at the heart of a free and peaceable Australia.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has put together these new resources to help employers navigate their way through the legal minefield of discrimination law and help avoid disaster.

We must never forget that commercial law and industrial law, for example, started from very humble beginnings a century or so ago, and were once viewed as dangerous and radically new legal concepts. We should note the lessons of history, which teach us that countries with high standards of governance, in say, the area of commercial law and compliance with that law, are those countries which have prospered. It should not come as a surprise to any of us that the improved governance which came from compliance with commercial law, for example, proved to be an enormous economic advantage to countries like Britain. Demonstrably, compliance with anti-discrimination law will in time come to be seen as conferring a similar advantage.

The Good Practice; Good Business employers' pack is a step-by-step guide to a discrimination-free workplace.

The examples are obvious.
All employers should know that if one of your employees is sexually harassing another, then the employer could also be liable if he or she does not take steps to stop or prevent it. A workplace free of sexual harassment is, after all, a workplace free to get on with the business of business. The costs of staff turnover, a collapse in staff morale and a drop in productivity in a workplace where sexual harassment occurs are the price employers and the economy pay for discrimination.

Wise employers ought to know that they should consider allowing flexible work practices for a pregnant employee.

And prudent employers would know that you can't ask a person's age in an interview.

Discrimination is not efficient. It is not smart either. For individuals it may be devastating.

But many employers are not always aware of their legal obligation not to discriminate in these and other ways. In fact, many employers may still not be aware that a new law prohibiting age discrimination came into effect in June this year!

The CD-Rom, new "Info for Employers" website and printed brochures and posters in Good Practice: Good Business show employers how to write an effective anti-discrimination and harassment policy and to draw up best practice guidelines for recruitment and selection.

There are checklists for employers, guidance on how to handle complaints and useful contacts for further information.

There are guides to the law in each State and Territory in Australia and fact sheets that give you a ready reference and help you to know whether or not discrimination is occurring.

Take Recruiting the best person for the job.
Fair recruitment practices are good business.

As employers you want to be able to dip into the biggest pool of workplace talent you can find.

Falling birth-rates, stagnant immigration flows, a rapidly ageing population and retirement incomes that don't measure up to the rosy promises of many superannuation spruikers mean that the pool is changing shape.

It makes sense for employers to respect the qualities of all workers- to welcome older workers, workers with family responsibilities, workers whose first language is not English, Indigenous workers and workers with a disability.

Then there's keeping good workers. This too, is about respect. A dysfunctional workplace where sexual harassment is rife, people are promoted because of their gender or denied promotion because of their age means lower morale, lower productivity, high staff turnover and high absenteeism.

Not to mention stress claims, court cases and countless hours of an employer's time sorting out the problems.
For employers, it is a matter of ethics and of cost. A discrimination-free workplace minimises costs to business. For the individual concerned, discrimination is a cause of great pain; for the nation, it is a matter of not only cost, and of respect and tolerance, but of harmony.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission administers the Disability Discrimination Act; Racial Discrimination Act; Sex Discrimination Act, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act and more recently, the Age Discrimination Act.

One of the Commission's functions is to promote these Acts.

Business doesn't want to spend a lot of time and money doing things that are not useful or cost effective.

Business does want to minimise complaints and disruptions, add to the bottom line and enhance its reputation.

That's why you, as employers, need to believe in and create a discrimination-free workplace.

The Good Practice; Good Business employers' pack is designed to help you to work out what are sex discrimination and sexual harassment, racial discrimination, age discrimination, discrimination on the ground of disability and other breaches of human rights.

It will give you an idea of your legal responsibilities as an employer and some guidance on how to deal with problems in the workplace - and how and when to call in outside help.

It will also give you a clear idea of how the Commission's complaint process works in case some-one in your workplace makes a complaint to the Commission.

Age Discrimination

The federal Age Discrimination Act came into force in June this year.

It runs parallel with federal Government efforts to encourage older workers to remain in the workforce for longer.

As Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination (as well as being the Sex Discrimination Commissioner) I will be promoting the benefits of older - and younger - workers whenever and wherever I can.

By 2051, one in four Australians will be over the age of 65. Within the next decade we face a potential shortage of skilled workers as baby-boomers aged over 55 exit the workforce.

Economic reasons - as much as this new discrimination law - will no doubt change our hiring and promotion practices in the not-too-distant future.

The Good Practice; Good Business employers' pack provides a range of material to help you understand age discrimination.

I'd like to add a few words here about bullying, a very heated and popular topic but not one covered by anti discrimination laws.

Like discrimination, it is costly. It can cause health problems such as anxiety and depression.

Bullying can affect not just one person but the whole workplace through lost productivity, lower morale and loss of valuable staff.

A recent impact and cost assessment study calculated that workplace bullying costs Australian employers between $6 - $36 billion dollars every year when hidden and lost opportunity costs are considered.

Employers will find this package helps them deal with tough and legally ephemeral issues like bullying, as well as discrimination issues, because they are all on the continuum of good and respectful human resource management.

No one should assume the Commission has done all this on its own. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources (Office of Small Business) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions all provided feedback on the draft material in the pack, which was incorporated into the final resource kit. Thank you.

The feedback was very positive from all of these groups. They saw the resources covering a broad spectrum of issues and all agreed that the information was thorough and easy to understand.

We have had an overwhelmingly positive response to the Good practice, good business' employers' pack since we announced the resources would be available following today's launch.

State and Federal Government departments, business and industry groups, employer organisations, human resource and personnel companies, employment and recruitment agencies, and legal firms have contacted us to order multiple copies of the pack.

In fact yesterday, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry ordered 70 employer packs to distribute to their members, and the total order run so far already numbers into the thousands - which just shows the necessity for comprehensive anti-discrimination and harassment information of this type.

The Australian Public Service Commission (Organisational Performance and Values Group) are disseminating details of the pack to over 200 diversity practitioners and the ACT Council of Social Services Inc. have ordered packs to hand out at seminars and other events and also to have as a resource for their own work.

In addition, the Federal Department of Employment and Workplace Relations has linked our material on Age Discrimination to their website dedicated to mature age employment - www.jobwise.gov.au; and the Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources (Office of Small Business) is happy to provide links to the pack to their small business website - www.smallbusiness.gov.au and the Business Entry Point at www.business.gov.au.

All this interest before we have even finished launching the kit! It's going to be big!

The Commission will continue to promote the Good Practice; Good Business employers' pack widely though businesses and employers' organisations, the general media and specialist business publications, through recruitment agencies, government departments and unions.

We have set up a targeted mailing list to which employers can subscribe to get regular information about issues relevant to them and their businesses.

I hope all employers will download the CD onto their intranet for your employees to access and that you will make training on these issues an essential part of induction for new employees.

I hope employers will find it useful and easy to use. I trust it will save them the inconvenience, cost and disruption of having outside organisations involved in their workplace problems.

Employers who use the pack will see the benefits of a diverse and motivated workforce. Let's face it, court cases and staff resignations are the long way around to a discrimination-free merit based work place. Prevention is always better than cure- it is cheaper and kinder. This kit is part of prevention.

I would like to thank everyone for attending today. Please feel free to have a play with the information on the CD Rom and look at the new 'info for employers' website section on the computers we have set up for you to our right.

Again, a special thank you to employer groups for your warm welcome to the kit and for your commitment to spreading the word. Nobody said humans, let alone bosses were perfect but this kit is designed to make perfection a little easier.

One last thing, if there is any media in attendance and you have any further questions I would be happy to speak to you privately over afternoon tea.

Thanks you.

Address: 
Australia