How to … set up an equal opportunity officer role

by 21 Aug 2007

Small- to medium-sized businesses often both thrive and survive on staff who are jacks-of-all-trades. Without the resources to hire people for every task required, smaller organisations need to get by on robust, flexible people who can ‘move with the gaps’.

Move into the big league and you’ll find that many large organisations are blessed with HR departments bursting with specialist personnel, each working on a specific aspect of the HR realm of concern.

Smaller organisations tend to compensate here with standardised policies and procedures that only get pulled off the shelf and dusted when things go wrong and someone says, ‘Didn’t we once have a policy on that?’

Alternatively, these organisations may be driven by the perennial and persistent duty of ‘legal obligation’.

Whether internally or externally driven, ticking the HR boxes tends to only help with certain aspects of running a sound business – generally those matters defined as low in occurrence, but high in risk if they do happen.

Equal opportunity requirements are often low occurrence/high risk, yet they tend to miss the radars of either standardised procedures or legal obligation.

Better than waiting for something to go horribly wrong first, a few guidelines can help even the smallest of organisations feel protected while supporting their staff.

Work with what youve got

For small organisations, the key is to engage your people in the process. Among a team of (hopefully) robust, flexible employees, you should be able to find someone keen to take on an equal opportunity officer role.

Crucial to the role is that the EO officer is an impartial source of information to anyone with an equal opportunity issue. The impartiality of the task should help a suitable person feel comfortable about the role.

If no suitable person is identifiable, you may invite staff to nominate themselves. If more than one hand goes up, senior management should make the final call.

Of course the EO officer does not have to be female. Men can make for equally good EO officers. More so, the role goes beyond gender issues. The Equal Opportunity Act lists fourteen different forms of discrimination, including race and disability in the mix.

Stepping up to the role

Training to be an EO officer is not rocket science, but it does require a level head, an ability to understand multiple perspectives and a sense of trustworthiness and honesty.

All Australian state and territory equal opportunity commissions and boards conduct regular training sessions for EO officers. These courses offer a good start.

Senior managers can also step up to the role by becoming familiar with their organisation’s rights and obligations, as well as identifying what reasonable precautions must be taken under the law.

By including all staff in the need for – and strong benefits of – supporting an equitable workplace, chances are you’ll find an EO officer with little to do in the role, freed up to get on with all their business-critical functions.

By Di Pierce, facilitator and program manager, Australian Women & Leadership Forum