‘Toxic’ legal workplaces must be tackled collectively

By Jerome Doraisamy|14 July 2020
Sydney CBD

Addressing the “huge structural” issues that still plague legal workplaces can only be achieved collaboratively by individuals, employers and professional associations in law.

Much has been said in recent weeks about the urgent need to improve workplace safety for legal professionals across the board, in the wake of the findings from the independent inquiry conducted on behalf of the High Court of Australia that former justice Dyson Heydon had harassed six female associates during his time on the nation’s foremost bench.

The accusations levelled against Mr Heydon are reminiscent of sexual misconduct scandals in the Supreme Court of the United States, one academic wrote, and have been interpreted as a stark reminder of the imperative to stamp out sexual harassment and other forms of workplace misconduct, such as bullying.

Last week, over 500 female legal professionals wrote to Attorney-General Christian Porter, calling on the government to “seize the moment” and establish a complaints body operating independently of the judiciary. Elsewhere, it has been argued that law firms need to be taking more proactive steps to combat such misconduct.

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However, Dr Raymond Trau – a senior lecturer in the Department of Management at Macquarie University – feels that responsibility must be borne by all legal professionals, who must tackle the “huge structural” issues facing the profession as a whole.

“It will take time but the key is to set goals and make progress on achieving them so that momentum can be built over time,” he told Lawyers Weekly.

This is particularly pertinent, he noted, as “hypercompetitive” environments in the legal profession can further exacerbate a toxic workplace culture.

“This kind of environment encourages masculine traits such as behaving aggressively, being competitive and taking risks. This masculine culture is further reinforced when the leadership of an organisation consists solely of or mostly men,” he outlined.

“This toxic culture endorses a winner-takes-all mentality and where women and men who are perceived to be weaker are collateral damage. In these organisations homophobic attitudes prevail and women and other men experience harassment, bullying or intimidation.

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“The first step to fixing this issue is to balance the gender mix at the top of the organisation which more likely has the effect of lowering toxic masculine norms and behaviours over time.”

In the past, Dr Trau explained, the onus has been on the victim to report harassment or bullying, “but most are vulnerable and often in a junior level within the organisation and therefore, powerless”.

“Furthermore, some employers use confidential settlements as a cost-effective way to deal with the issue. However, this does not solve the issue at hand and instead reinforces toxic behaviour as perpetrators view financial remedies as a quick fix that do not require behavioural change,” he said.

Employers and institutions must step up in more meaningful ways, Dr Trau argued.

“Individual legal employers must take ownership of this problem if they are to meaningfully shift the culture of their organisation. There must be a will for change [among] leaders, and this should be backed by a [data-driven] business case,” he said.

“Data [helps highlight] the extent of a problem and also the business case for culture change. The next step is to establish robust policies and procedures to tackle the issue which may require a comprehensive review and revision of existing policies and practices.”

Leaders and individuals at various levels also need to take ownership of the issue, Dr Trau continued, and “call out toxic behaviour as it occurs and play a constructive bystander role” if the organisation is to prevent and address bullying and sexual harassment.

“However, many individuals are not aware of their rights and responsibilities, and therefore, comprehensive training is required if organisations are to build awareness and understanding [among] its employees. Also, creating a safe climate empowers employees as they feel safe to have meaningful conversations and take actions on how prevailing norms and attitudes can be shifted,” he said.

‘Toxic’ legal workplaces must be tackled collectively
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