From anime toys to political paraphernalia, HRM looks at what you can and can’t bring to work.
Earlier this month Fair Work Commission Deputy President Gerard Boyce received a dressing down in a Senate estimates hearing regarding his office decor. Boyce had made a number of questionable interior decorating decisions, including a life-size cutout of Donald Trump but the media zeroed in on the “scantily clad” female figurines he displayed on his desk.
It has been reported Boyce’s collection included Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad and Scarlet Johanssen as Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell. The collection apparently totalled about 20 figurines, all of which have now been removed according to the FWC.
The FWC incident reveals a deeper issue HR professionals have contended with for some time; where do you lay the line when it comes to workplace decorations? How much can one show their individuality at work and what impact does it have on workplace culture?
Not all workplaces are decorated equally
Director of HR Gurus Emily Jaksch acknowledges workspace decorations are usually covered by an organisation’s equal opportunity or bullying and harassment policies, but since these differ from company to company some employees can miss the memo.
“It comes down to the culture of your workplace, but there is a line. What is acceptable in one workplace might not be acceptable in another.”
Jaksch says there is still a segment of the workplace who are part of the “old guard” and struggling to accept new policies. However, she says that’s not an excuse to let staff get away with upsetting anyone.
“He might have had those figurines on display for years and now he’s been told it’s not ok. These things need to be dealt with immediately.
“I worked at Holden years ago. I would go into factories and there would be pictures from People magazine on the wall. I thought it was really gross, but I didn’t want to say anything because I was very young and I wasn’t senior.
“It’s not acceptable anymore for women or men to work in a workplace where people have things displayed others might find offensive.”
Power and politics
Like many areas of organisational culture, power and seniority play a role in the likelihood of someone complaining.
“There needs to be a consideration of power in these instances. When someone is in a position of power others might not feel comfortable speaking up about issues or saying ‘I don’t feel comfortable with this’ or ‘I find that offensive’.
“These policies and rules need to be enforced consistently and across the board. You don’t want someone feeling like they can’t say something because that person is quite senior.”
In 2018, Senator James McGrath – who was among those at the Senate estimates hearing – tweeted a photo of his office decor. McGrath had chosen to deck out his Canberra office in taxidermied animal heads. The animals alone might have gone ignored but McGrath decided to tweet, “If this doesn’t annoy the greenies then I really need to try harder”.
McGrath argued in the recent hearing that “I don’t think we can draw from someone’s preferences for different types of artwork as to their professionalism.” But his own case is an interesting way to draw contrasts.
As a member of the coalition, it’s possible McGrath’s LNP colleagues take no issue with taxidermy. However, he is also an employee of the Federal government and is intentionally decorating his office with things he hopes are offensive to parliamentary colleagues with differing environmental views. Does that change the calculus on what he can and cannot display?
On the other side of the equation, as a Senator he is in a position of power. And it’s not like parliament is a typical workplace. Might there be exceptions for displaying things that are borderline?
Let’s do a hypothetical. Business XYZ hosts an annual company soccer competition. Justin is on Team A and a very good goalie. Viola is the striker for Team B and had many a goal thwarted by Justin. It’s a topic of friendly friction between the two. One day, Viola puts up a poster on her desk requesting someone break Justin’s hands so he can’t be goalie anymore. Justin finds the poster amusing, but Viola’s deskmate finds it unsavoury and complains to HR. Should she take the poster down?
Let’s do another, based on something that really happened.
Samantha is a psychology professor and her particular area of study is decision making in birds. She has a collection of taxidermied former research specimens in her office where she also meets with students. Some students have taken issue with the stuffed birds and complained to the dean. Is she in the wrong?
Better safe than sorry?
If something is pertinent to work, such as in Samantha’s case, there is a strong argument that it’s within bounds. But ultimately every decision is a judgement call.
“People have a right to display their political affiliations or interests but we need to be respectful of each other and pull each other up,” says Jaksch.
“Most people are pretty rational. If someone says, ‘that’s not ok’ they say ‘alright I’ll remove it’. But people need to be willing to speak up.”
“I understand people say, ‘Oh where does this all end. Are we going to a nanny state?’ I don’t think that at all. I don’t think that’s what anyone wants, but if it’s inappropriate or offends a certain group that’s not acceptable.”
At the end of the day, says Jaksch, HR needs to ensure there is a clear complaints process, but more than that, ensure the process is followed every time.
“It’s about looking at these things on a case by case basis. You don’t want a workplace where no one feels comfortable expressing themselves but it’s about treating others with respect and being mindful when your actions impact other people.
“If people are complaining, because they’re offended about what is on someone’s desk and for that workplace not to do something about it is a problem.
“People are entitled to have hobbies and interests but they shouldn’t always be brought to the workplace. Maybe keep it in your study at home”.
Update: this article has been changed in an effort to be respectful to readers complaints. We have removed the phrase “doubled down” and changed “likely” to “it’s possible”.