Novelty aprons leave senior execs facing disciplinary action

by Stephanie Zillman30 Aug 2012

They’re the aprons plaguing buck’s parties around the country, and its laughs all round when someone dons one at a BBQ. Yet, when two senior male staffers at Australia’s largest logistics company put on aprons depicting a penis at a company meeting, it went down like a lead balloon.

Toll Holdings are back in the news again, this time for taking disciplinary action against two senior leaders for sexually inappropriate conduct during a two-day business meeting in Sydney that offended female staff members. Employees present at the meeting held in early June took photographs which show at least one Toll executive simulating sex with a toy donkey whilst wearing the apron in question.

Two female Toll staff told Fairfax on the condition of anonymity that the behaviour of the men was indicative of a culture of sexism, bullying and harassment rife at Toll. HR director Lesley Staples said that following a complaint, she “conducted a thorough investigation” including interviewing witnesses and reviewed thousands of emails. “The extensive and comprehensive investigation concluded that the conduct of some staff breached Toll’s code of practice and was inconsistent with the high standards and values expected of the company,” Staples said. She added that the Toll staff members who wore the aprons caused sexual innuendo that was not appropriate for a workplace event. Toll has reportedly taken action including counselling and disciplinary measures against the staff involved and will be providing additional training on appropriate workplace behaviour.

The incident a reminder of the fine line HR must tread in guiding employees on appropriate workplace conduct without coming across as the ‘fun police’. The executives involved in this incident doubtlessly did so thinking it was humorous, yet failed to consider the broader backdrop of sexual harassment and bullying concerns. Humour must be inclusive to rule out harassment and discrimination concerns, and there are substantial liability risks for unguarded employers if they are seen to have condoned the behaviour.

In communicating the purpose of strict limits on humour in the workplace to employees, it is important to highlight that by no means is ‘fun’ being eliminated, or that the company is regulating how colleagues relate. It is simply about setting boundaries to foster a healthy work environment, free from hostility and legal exposure, which will ultimately make everyone happier and more relaxed at work.

As a rule of thumb, certain types of comments, jokes, and pranks are never appropriate in the workplace and should not be encouraged or tolerated. Many topics are legally mandated as “off limits” in the workplace, and polices should prohibit employees from innuendos, and making comments or references about:

  • Sexual orientation or acts
  • Religious or political practices or beliefs
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Social status, gender, or age-related stereotypes
  • Physical appearance and attributes
  • Weight-related issues
  • Disabled persons, or persons with any form of diminished capacity
  • Any other topic that targets an individual or group as being inferior

COMMENTS

  • by Bernie Althofer 30/08/2012 3:01:18 PM

    Really, not a lot of difference between the seriousness of that and giving a Harassment Referral Officer a coffee cup with the words "Guess how many donuts I can fit on ...." Despite all the strong messages and penalties being communicated, some people still think it is appropriate to push the boundaries. Some people forget that in this day and age where almost everyone is adept in the use of social media, incidents such as this can be broadcast to a wide audience before even the CEO is aware of the matter. This is another reason why educative processes have to incorporate currency of knowledge regarding Court, Commission and Tribunal decisions.

  • by Denitza Genova 31/08/2012 10:26:31 AM

    Without arguing the absolute necessity to abide by organisational and society accepted moral standards two questions always come to mind when reading about such cases.
    The first one is: "Is the extent of the follow-up actions undertaken commensurate with the severity of the case? And the second one: "Has anyone thought about doing a Cost-Benefit Analysis before undertaking the remedial actions? What is the cost to business of having to go to such extreme in order to sanction someone's behaviour? Just look at what Toll had to do: "conducted a thorough investigation” including interviewing witnesses and reviewed thousands of emails. “The extensive and comprehensive investigation concluded that the conduct of some staff breached Toll’s code of practice and was inconsistent with the high standards and values expected of the company,”...." counselling and disciplinary measures against the staff involved and will be providing additional training on appropriate workplace behaviour". So who do you think ends up paying this bill? If you just trace the value chain and look at the big picture you'll just see yourself in the mirror - in the increased prices we have to pay, in the lack of attentive customer service because of otherwise preoccupied and re-focused service providers, businesses generating significant losses, organisations reducing the number and creativity of their social events....
    Could this not have been dealt with traditional performance management means, having the tough conversation with the people in question and trying to keep things in perspective?

  • by NN 31/08/2012 5:38:55 PM

    I am just so happy I left TOLL (after many years of service). This a NOTHING compared to the harrasment experienced on a daily basis. Complains? They are buried somewhere not to reach the correct level. Their policies are not worth the piece of paper they are written on.

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