Excessive alcohol was found to contribute to sexual misconduct in Parliament House, but the problem is far more widespread. As EOY parties ramp up, here’s how you can create a safer drinking culture.
The toxic workplace culture at Parliament House has come under sharp criticism after a comprehensive review was launched by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins last month.
The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Report, titled Set the Standard, called for clearer guidelines around the expectations and standards of alcohol use in Parliament, while also proposing to limit the availability of alcohol.
Several participants noted how the fly-in-fly-out nature of the workforce meant they were often forced to share a room with a colleague due to limited hotel availability or budget restrictions. Shared accommodation, heavy drinking, a lack of accountability, among other factors, may have laid the groundwork for misconduct to occur.
It also became clear that alcohol wasn’t restricted to after-work events; politicians would be drinking when Parliament was still sitting, according to the report.
Of course, excessive drinking isn’t the only factor leading to sexual misconduct in Parliament. Numerous other risks, including casual sexism and discrimination, exacerbate the risk of sexual harassment and assault.
One participant described Parliament House as “the most sexist place I’ve worked”. They said there is a “workplace culture of drinking” and minimal accountability.
“Young women, particularly media advisers coming in, particularly the younger women coming in, were like fresh meat and challenges,” the participant said.
Of course, instances of dangerous drinking cultures are present across many industries, and a celebratory drink or a cold one at the end of a hard day’s work are very much part of Australian culture. This makes it hard to remove drinking entirely from our work culture – celebrations, tough days and milestones are often marked with a glass of something.
As many companies gear up for their office Christmas parties, ensuring there are comprehensive steps in place to keep employees safe is essential.
This isn’t to say employees shouldn’t let their hair down as the silly season approaches – after all, it’s been a long and taxing year for many – but employees’ safety and wellbeing should always be kept front of mind.
HRM speaks to Nick Hedges, Director of ResolveHR, about how companies can create a safe drinking culture.
Don’t have time to read the whole article? We’ve summarised the key points below:
- The Set the Standard report identifies five primary areas in which Parliament needs to shift its culture: leadership, diversity, equity and inclusion, systems to support performance, standards, reporting and accountability, and safety and wellbeing.
- The report recommends that Parliament implement strategies such as limiting alcohol, running alcohol and drugs training, setting clear expectations around the use of alcohol, and hosting non-alcohol events as part of a ‘harm minimisation’ approach.
- Nick Hedges advises that workplaces put policies into practice by running regular and comprehensive training about responsible consumption of alcohol, and creating a safe working environment.
What Set the Standard found
Before we dive into advice about creating a safe drinking culture, it’s worth touching on some of the recommendations made in Jenkins’ report as many could be translated to other organisations. But if you’re just looking for advice on addressing alcohol issues in the workplace, skip to the next section.
Over half of all people currently working in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces have experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or sexual assault in a work context, according to the Set the Standard report.
“That is unacceptably high,” Jenkins said when the report was launched. “Many people, both current and former staff, have had meaningful careers in parliamentary workplaces, motivated by a genuine commitment to contribute to the nation’s success… However, we found that even those with positive experiences participated in [the] Review in recognition that this workplace does not meet the standards that the nation’s Parliament should meet.”
Beyond the drinking culture issues, she points to a lack of clear standards of conduct, limited accountability, power imbalances, high-intensity work, the blurring of personal and professional life, intense loyalty to political parties, and the pursuit of political advantage as “specific risk factors” unique to Parliament House. Many of these risk factors also exist in other work cultures, too.
The combined testimony collated from more than 1700 contributions, made by current and former staff, revealed that “current systems and reward structures encourage, tolerate and enable misconduct, and processes are not equipped to prevent or address the consequences of that behaviour,” Jenkins outlined in the report.
Providing 128 recommendations for Parliament to radically change its workplace culture, the report breaks down the shifts required into five main areas:
1. Leadership: Urge leaders to recognise the problem through a joint Statement of Acknowledgement, and take active steps to ensure a safe and respectful workplace.
“No one is leading the parliament on these issues as they should be. There need to be clear expectations in place,” says Hedges.
2. Diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI): Create strategies and implement targets to improve gender equality in Parliament. This should entail continued review and reporting to the public to ensure accountability.
As the report notes, “Women are underrepresented in decision-making roles and… there is a lack of broader diversity across CPWs (Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces). This contributes to a ‘boys club’ culture and bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault.”
A series of recommendations were outlined to improve DEI of women, First Nations people, people from CALD backgrounds, people living with disability and LGBTIQ+ people, including increasing representation particularly in senior parliamentary roles, improving physical infrastructure to increase accessibility and inclusion, and eliminating sexist and discriminatory language.
3. Systems to support performance: Set up a centralised Office of Parliamentarian Staffing and Culture to create and enforce standards and policies for all parliamentarians.
“Fundamentally, parliament is a workplace,” says Hedges. “When I’m talking to [employers], I’m emphasising that they have to have standards, policies, codes of conduct and minimum expectations of behaviour… So those working in the parliament, whether they be parliamentarians or staffers, need to abide by similar codes. There should be no excuses for [anyone].”
4. Standards, reporting and accountability: Establish an Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission that includes clear reporting avenues and sanctions for misconduct.
Misconduct and non-compliance in Parliament House would be referred to the Commission, and the Office would also deliver mandatory respectful workplace behaviour training, among other responsibilities.
5. Safety and wellbeing: Reduce the risk factors for misconduct by implementing a holistic health and wellbeing service, and clear alcohol policies.
The report found that there is a lack of clarity around work health and safety obligations, inconsistent approaches to managing risks, and limited recognition of bullying, sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.
Alcohol limits to address workplace culture
Jenkins advised that restricting access to alcohol be included in comprehensive policies that clearly outline acceptable standards of consumption.
“When we write policies, we say that you can’t come to the workplace intoxicated or under the influence – you shouldn’t be operating machinery, and this would even extend to not being on your laptop,” says Hedges.
If there’s reasonable suspicion that an employee is under the influence, a company can implement breath testing, he recommends.
As mentioned earlier, it’s not just alcohol that can contribute to toxic behaviours during social or out-of-hours work events: Parliamentarians are also away from their families, often working in high-pressure jobs with poor work/life balance, and dealing with a high degree of stress.
More steps need to be taken to alleviate the stress of those working long hours in high-pressure jobs, such as lawyers and bankers, says Hedges.
“What else is there internally that can act as a stress relief besides alcohol? Could employers run exercise classes for departments and bring in personal trainers, yoga sessions and other wellbeing strategies to offer stress relief?” says Hedges. “Are there other low-cost initiatives, such as walking meetings or holding meetings outside in a local park, that could be considered? Maybe the company could train one or two people to run meditation classes, and those employees become champions of that.”
The oft-said adage, ‘work hard, play hard’, can set a dangerous standard.
“At the moment, what they mean by ‘play hard’ is ‘get smashed’. ‘Play hard’ needs to take on a different connotation. Why can’t ‘play hard’ mean that we celebrate wins by going out for a social activity that doesn’t involve alcohol?”
Education to address drinking culture at work
It’s one thing to implement a workplace alcohol and drug policy, but for the standards to filter through to employee behaviour, policies need to be followed up with comprehensive training and align with your workplace culture.
“People need to be trained and understand them. It’s not just ticking the box and saying ‘I’ve read that’, it’s about unpacking and embedding it,” says Hedges.
Workplace policies, culture and training needs to be in line with its regulations, as a 2015 finding by the NSW District Court highlights.
The court found in favour of an insurance broker, who was unfairly dismissed after becoming intoxicated and passing out in a hotel corridor at a work event. He arrived hungover at work the following day.
Heavy drinking was found to be commonplace at the company, and other employees who had become intoxicated at work events had not suffered a penalty as serious as dismissal. The case made clear that a company’s disciplinary measures must be consistent with the prevailing workplace culture.
“There’s often a cultural aspect to employees getting drunk. We really push that aspect home with our clients,” says Hedges. “I always say that we’ll write up their alcohol and drug policy, but that everybody also needs to be trained about the policy, because if a company fires somebody for being drunk at work, the dismissed employee is going to turn around and say, ‘I don’t remember that. I read it years ago,’” says Hedges.
“At the moment, what they mean by ‘play hard’ is ‘get smashed’. ‘Play hard’ needs to take on a different connotation.” – Nick Hedges, Director of ResolveHR.
Training should be covered for new employees as part of an onboarding process, and refresher courses run at least every two years, says Hedges, adding that if a new policy is implemented, employees should be trained straight away.
Regular training also needs to be interspersed with clear communication, particularly before a work event.
Employers should reiterate the company’s expectations alongside its policies, says Hedges.
“If your expectation is that everybody will make their own way home [after a work event], or that the company will provide cab charges, put that element in your pre-event communication. You want to convey that everyone is there to look after each other, protect the business and say, ‘If anybody is over the limit, they will be asked to leave the function.’
“We’ve drafted those things for organisations and it works a lot better [than assuming your employees know these things already]… Set the expectations early.”
Alcohol at work functions can increase the chances of sexual harassment or assault occurring.
AHRI’s short course on Bullying and Harassment can help you tackle these issues.
Book in for the next course on 1 February.