Was Christine Holgate a casualty of workplace system failure?

By Michael Plowright

Friday April 16, 2021

Christine Holgate (AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)

This week on the ABC’s 7.30 Report, Laura Tingle asked Christine Holgate why it was so important that she give evidence at the Senate Inquiry. Holgate replied: “I felt that it’s critically important to speak out for all people who have been bullied. I want what happened to me to never happen again.”

It’s a plea I have heard innumerable times in my work and one that I have also shared having experienced bullying. And the sad truth is the plea will be repeated throughout Australian workplaces and government due to fundamental failings in systems. Until we are consciously willing to fix those (and yes there has to be conscious willingness), then we are likely to see this scenario repeat like a scratched record.

The role of systems in workplace bullying prevention

The incidence of workplace bullying occurs when workplace systems fail, are not implemented effectively or do not exist at all. The University of South Australia research has shown that a key reason bullying survives and thrives in a workplaces is as a result of this. The research team explored system based predictors of workplace bullying by examining 342 (approximately 5500 pages) of workplace bullying complaints.

From these complaints, they identified three overarching workplace system groupings (or risk contexts) that could be used to identify workplace bullying risk at the same time as identifying the percentage of prevalence of each of these groupings. The three grouping and their presences were:

Shaping relationships in the ct were involved in 65% of the complaints.

Coordinating and administrating working hours were involved in 46% of complaints.

Managing workplace performance were involved in 82% of bullying complaints.

Could the system’s approach have predicted and prevented Holgate’s claim?

The answer, in short and using Australian slang, is bloody oath. It was flying towards us like a bullet. If we look at the systems risk context, there was a failure in both managing work performance and shaping relationships in the work environment.

Nothing outlined thus far has indicated that there was any procedural fairness in Holgate’s experience. There appears to have been no management of her work performance. If she erred in her decision making, it appears not to have been highlighted in a way the replicates standard managing poor performance.

In fact, at the highest level in parliament, Scott Morrison stated “The chief executive…she’s been instructed to stand aside and if she doesn’t wish to do that Mr Speaker, SHE CAN GO!”

This would not be tolerated in most workplaces for the majority of employees. Holgate should have been afforded privacy and confidentiality via a clear process. It is a clear systems failure as there appears to have been none followed or implemented to come to the decision that she should stand, or be stood, down.

Tick the box. One predictor of workplace bullying identified.

The other predictor, shaping relationships in the work environment, I would argue, was more destructive. This predictor focuses on respecting, valuing, and involving individual employees, leadership, and maintaining a safe work environment.

Holgate’s experience

Let’s review what Holgate had to say of her experience. In her own words, she felt publicly hung, humiliated and also felt suicidal. She was publicly humiliated being drawn as a prostitute in a cartoon. Her employer did not come to her defence and make statements to contradict how she was portrayed.

She stated “People have the right to go to work and the right to come home safe.” This was not afforded to her.

She states she would have hoped that she would have received a call before her public humiliation and asked directly what happened and why, but this didn’t occur. A reasonable management action that would be afforded to most employees. A respectful approach and one that considers her psychological safety. But not for Holgate.

Tick the box. The second identifier of workplace bullying is identified.

Based on the fact that two identifiers are present, the claim could have both been predicted and prevented.

Does the wider systems gap stem from the Canberra political circus?

However, there is a wider problem here and it stems from the circus of politics. Scott Morrison is not the employer and Australia Post is, after this event theoretically, an independent statutory body. They sit outside the workplace system.

But what of the political system? It suffers from its own system gap of lack of defined ethical and respectful behaviour. Politicians aren’t held to account against a code of conduct. They aren’t put through a rigorous recruitment process that measures them against values to hold office. Parliamentary privilege protects politicians where the public would not be able to say the same things without consequences.

In 2012, Julia Gillard spoke of the misogyny in Canberra in parliament. In many workplaces, such a public statement would have triggered a system and process of review. Not in Canberra.

Canberra ticked both boxes when it comes to the Holgate bullying claim. They didn’t follow a system that manages work performance or shapes relationships in the work environment. It’s a safe bet to say they don’t actually have the systems. That’s politics.

As Holgate states: “It seems to be a special place with its own rules, but they are not good rules and they need to be changed.” In other words, it operates outside of the rest of our society.

In standing up in public Holgate asks “What kind of leader would I be, if I would tolerate bullying because that would mean they were entitled to do it to others”.

Holgate’s bullying issue is one for all workplaces and leaders to contemplate, both in the public and private sectors.

Australian workplaces, boards and governments must take a system approach to eradicate the harm caused. Boxes cannot just be ticked — systems need urgent overhauling and adherence.


AusPost chair admits Christine Holgate treated ‘abysmally’, but won’t apologise

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