The selection & role of contact officers

by 14 Nov 2011

The primary role of a contact officer is to provide employees of an organisation with access to the processes, structures and support mechanisms that ensure allegations of unlawful discrimination, harassment and workplace bullying are managed with procedural fairness, dignity and an appropriate level of confidentiality. Contact officers should not be viewed as mediators, counsellors or advocates for individuals involved in a matter.

The role therefore requires some key areas of prerequisite competency. These include:

  • Advanced listening skills
  • The ability to articulate information clearly
  • The confidence to talk openly with other employees
  • The ability to remain objective and non-judgmental
  • The willingness to role model respectful behaviours
  • The ability to take brief but concise notes
  • Demonstrated emotional intelligence

A well structured and professional contact officer training program should provide contact officers with an in depth understanding of the role as well as the organisation’s anti-discrimination, harassment and bullying policy, processes, structures and support mechanisms. The training should also allow the contact officer to observe how a one-to-one contact should take place. It is very important that participants get the opportunity to practice working within the boundaries of the role.

Selection process

We hear of numerous variations on the methodology that organisations use for selecting and appointing their contact officers. These range from a directive appointment by the organisation through to an employee voting system. There is no requirement by law as to how a contact officer selection process should be conducted (other than ensuring it complies with Australian Anti-Discrimination Laws), however, iHR Australia does have some suggestions as to how the process can be administered.

  1. HR should own the selection process.
  2. Staff should be involved in assisting with the selection process in that they may apply for the role or nominate (suggest) someone they feel would do it well. There should be a set applications / nominations period, perhaps two to four weeks. 
  3. Human Resources should conduct the applications / nominations process. They should provide employees with the criteria for selection at the commencement. HR should not publicise the names of all those who applied or were nominated but be prepared to debrief a person who applied or knows they were nominated but is unsuccessful in obtaining the role.
  4. It is ok for HR to encourage employees that they believe will do the job well to apply. That is to ‘encourage’ not ‘push’. However, the organisation must be clear that employees they encourage have been ear marked on the basis of merit, not factors such as industrial affiliations.
  5. A person who was nominated but does not wish to pursue the role should be able to decline without embarrassment.
  6. HR, in consultation with management, should ultimately decide who is going to be a contact officer. Some industrial agreements may specify consultation with or a role for the union in this kind of appointment. If a manager objects to a suggested contact officer, the matter must be talked through. The decision to appoint a contact officer should be on the basis of merit. 
  7. Once the selections have been made, HR should have individual meetings with the selected people. This allows HR to confirm the individual’s selection, reinforce key aspects of the role and actually reconfirm he or she is still committed to doing the role.
  8. The announcement should not just be made via email. contact officers have agreed to support the organisation and its employees and therefore are worthy of a respectful introduction. Furthermore, it is important that all staff are made aware of exactly who their contact officers are.

Should managers be contact officers?

Contact officers can come from all levels of the organisation. However, a manager of an employee is ultimately a manager under law. That means they have a duty of care to ensure issues brought to their attention are resolved in accordance with the organisational processes. This level of responsibility is advanced on the role of a contact officer, who exists to steer ‘peers’ in the right direction. It is, therefore, our view that having a couple of managers and supervisors as contact officers to their peers is useful, but that a contact officer system should not be built around management personnel.

About the author

Stephen Bell is managing director, iHR Australia & iHR Asia Pacific