AOC is not running a ‘sheltered workshop' for staff, says chief

by HCA27 Apr 2017
Australian Olympic Committee chief John Coates has been accused of writing in an email that a female employee should "get out in the real world" and that he was not running a "sheltered workshop".

The woman was being treated for cancer at the time, according to her superior, the former chief executive Fiona de Jong.

She also said Coates knew of the woman’s cancer because he had sent flowers to the hospital.

Coates' comments were allegedly in response to a request by de Jong for him to show more sensitivity towards employees.

“Naturally she was most upset, primarily at the misunderstanding of her actions, but also the public manner in which your opinions were expressed,’’ de Jong wrote.

Coates wrote back the following: “If she’s offended it’s probably time for her to get out in the real world,” he wrote back. “Ours is not a sheltered workshop.’’

The Australian Paralympic Committee chief executive Lynne Anderson said she was upset that Coates would use language that stigmatised people with disabilities. “Quite simply, we object to any language that portrays disability in a negative light,’’ she said.

Moreover, Coates’ ally, the media director Mike Tancred, has been stood down from all AOC duties until bullying allegations against him were resolved.

Tancred was also accused of bullying and intimidation by de Jong and other members of staff.

De Jong, who left the AOC in December last year, said she had made a formal complaint to Coates about Tancred four months ago.

Tancred is also facing allegations he harassed another former employee for taking two days off during the Beijing Olympics in 2008 due to a miscarriage. However, he has denied any wrongdoing.

The allegations come amidst a bitter election campaign for the AOC presidency, with Coates being challenged for the first time since he took the role 27 years ago.

HC contacted the AOC for comment and they said in a statement that the AOC Executive met last night to discuss the complaint made by de Jong regarding the alleged conduct of Tancred.

The Executive took legal advice to assess the complaint and on the appropriate course of action. In December 2016, upon receipt of the initial complaint, it was immediately referred by the President to the AOC’s lawyers in accordance with the AOC’s current policies and procedures, and they have been managing the complaint since.

After considering the legal advice and all the relevant circumstances, the AOC Executive made the following resolutions:

“It agreed to delegate the determination of the complaint to an independent committee with appropriate experience and ability, and the committee will comprise three senior counsel or retired judges, including at least one female within its membership,” said the statement.

“The committee will proceed to determine the complaint in their sole and absolute discretion on such material and in such manner as they see fit, subject to affording the parties natural justice.

“The committee will be asked to inform the Executive of their determination within one month of their appointment.

“The Executive expressed confidence that the current AOC proper processes were followed in respect of the complaint by Ms de Jong.

“Further, the AOC will commission an independent review, overseen by the incoming CEO, into workplace practices to ensure the best possible environment for our staff.

“The AOC supports an environment free from discrimination, harassment and bullying and will not tolerate behaviours that differ from this standard.”

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COMMENTS

  • by Bernie Althofer 28/04/2017 7:15:52 AM

    A recent discussion with a manager highlighted the complexities involved in managing and leading a multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural team. Communication and the way messages are delivered and interpreted can lead to adverse conflict that leads to damage to individual and organisational reputations.

    Whilst it is possible that some sayings are used in a 'jocular' manner, offence can and is easily caused resulting in complaints. As was indicated in the conversation with the manner, it appears that for some managers and workers (for various reasons), there is a lack of clarity about what is and what is not acceptable. In some cases, there is a close association between manager and worker and sometimes the social environment 'allows' and even encourages behaviour and language that is in direct contravention of an organisation's Code of Conduct or other document that prescribes workplace behaviour and conduct.

    Unfortunately, it also seems that whilst many organisations expect managers and workers at all levels to complete training, the delivery methods may not allow those individuals to discuss and gain a deep appreciation or comprehension about what might be offensive and why others would find it offensive. Passing off bad behaviour and conduct as 'that is just the way it is' is no longer acceptable. As some organisations may discover, individuals are documenting incidents involved inappropriate behaviour and conduct, and are prepared to make a complaint (sometimes at great personal cost).

    Organisations need to have systems and processes in place to maintain currency of knowledge for all managers and workers, irrespective of their level in that organisation. Simply continuing to act the same way and use behaviours or conduct that do not align with a contemporary organisation may only result in adverse publicity. Dismissing seemingly 'trivial' or 'minor' incidents as the actions of whingers and 'malcontents' without conducting some form of an investigation may result in external reviews being conducted. At the same time, organisations can learn from other reviews conducted in other organisations where complaints have identified systemic and ingrained cultures of bullying and other counterproductive workplace behaviours.

    Investing in proactive and preventive strategies may appear costly for decision makers. However, reactive approaches often lead to increased costs associated with downtime, lost productivity, increased claims and damage to reputation to name a few. When clients or prospective clients perceive that an organisation or even part of the organisation e.g. leadership is toxic or unwilling to address claims related to bullying, that client base may seek alternative business providers.

    In a time when businesses may seek to trade on an international level, reputation should be everything. How organisations treat their people and how they deal with and manage complaints may be taken into consideration when due diligence is conducted. Some companies may ask the question "Do I want my company linked to an organisation that condones or tolerates bullying?" A failure to demonstrate corporate and social responsibility when it comes to people, may determine the success or otherwise of an organisation.

    When any organisation becomes embroiled in managing and leading through the fallout from bullying allegations and incident, the recovery process for all involved may be just as damaging as the initial incident, but for different reasons. Preventing and detecting counterproductive workplace behaviours can be difficult if an organisation is not able to 'see' the problem. When there is finally an admission that there is a problem, the scope and magnitude becomes overwhelming with substantial time being invested into 'damage control'.

    Building an organisation where individual at all levels have the power and the confidence to report and discuss counterproductive workplace behaviours can involve a considerable change in culture. However, this needs to be lead from the top and unless there is willingness and commitment for this to happen, change may take considerably longer. Those lower down the organisation should not be accepting and should work towards creating an organisation where bullying and other counterproductive behaviours are 'driven out' and made to be unacceptable. Individuals at all levels need to ask themselves "What is my role in preventing and detecting such behaviours?" "Do I keep quiet or do I stand up and speak out and hope that I don't become the next target?"

  • by Catherine Cahill 28/04/2017 10:53:00 AM

    Whilst on the surface it looks like the AOC is acting, I would question the ability for 3 Judges to conduct a workplace investigation. I appreciate they absolutely have the skills to hear evidence and draw conclusions, but uncovering and understanding the sources and reasons for workplace bullying requires a totally different approach.

    The skills HR/Investigation professionals employ to encourage reluctant employees to provide truthful information in the process of having confidential meetings, allow us to uncover information that would never come to light in less supportive circumstances. A formal pseudo courtroom will not, and cannot, achieve the same outcome.

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