An independent report conducted by former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has exposed a damning portrait of one of Australia’s largest miners. The report, which surveyed more than 10,000 of Rio Tinto’s 45,000 employees, uncovered deeply distressing accounts of bullying, sexism, and racism.

The figures are alarming. 28 percent of women said they had been sexually harassed in the past 5 years, and 21 women reported actual or attempted rape or sexual assault in those 5 years.  

Female employees at fly-in fly-out (FIFO) worksites reported eating alone in their rooms and avoiding being out after dark to avoid harassment. They complained of poor lighting and security at these worksites. 

The women also spoke of a lack of follow-up after reporting cases of harassment, having to manage the situation themselves due to a lack of support from management and HR.

Over 48 percent of Rio Tinto’s employees said they had experienced some form of bullying. 

This bullying led to a number of these employees experiencing a loss of confidence, declining performance, anxiety and depression. The report found that instead of being punished for their behaviour, the bullies were often promoted to higher positions.

Nearly 40 percent of men who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander experienced racism in the last five years. One employee stated “I have copped racism in every single corner of this company.” Another commented, “Rio is a Caucasian-orientated company.”

Employees were discouraged from reporting these incidents due to a ‘culture of silence’ within the company. This was further compounded by the fact that the employees believed that those who engaged in these behaviours were likely to progress further through the company.

Whistleblowing mechanisms that have been in place for a long time within the company were found to not be fit for purpose. It seems that Rio Tinto simply put these mechanisms in place to tick a box, rather than building an effective system for victims to report incidents.

What Should Your Company Do?

The news of Rio Tinto’s abhorrent workplace culture highlights the fact that this kind of behaviour is prevalent in all types of companies, even those at the scale of Rio Tinto. Your company should avoid breeding such a culture not only because it will damage your company’s public image, it will also lead to declining employee productivity and higher staff turnover. 

Develop a Strong Code of Ethics and Conduct

The incidents of sexual harassment, bullying and racism at Rio Tinto occurred because of a culture against women and people of colour. A well-defined code of ethics and conduct can cultivate a culture of integrity and lead to overall positive outcomes for the company. 

But what is the difference between the two? A code of ethics governs decision-making, and a code of conduct governs actions.

Additionally, a code of ethics is broader in its nature, outlining what is acceptable for the company in terms of integrity. On the other hand, a code of conduct is more focused, instructing employees how they should act daily and in specific situations.

We can look at a case study to see how these codes can be used effectively.

IBM is a global technology company that provides hardware, software, cloud-based services and cognitive computing. Since being founded in 1911, IBM has implemented policies with a focus on inclusion and treating people with dignity and respect. This continues to this day, with the inclusion of policies reflecting genetics privacy and LGBTQIA+ equality.

IBM’s Code of Conduct is clear and extensive, covering areas such as compliance with securities and insider trading laws, respect and dignity, and antitrust and competition laws. Their values include:

  • Dedication to every clients’ success
  • Innovation that matters, for our company and for the world
  • Trust and personal responsibility in all relationships

In 2021, IBM was named one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies for the third year in a row. Clearly, IBM’s code of ethics and conduct have had a positive impact on the company.

For more examples of major companies’ code of conduct and ethics, check out this blog

 

Ensure an Effective Means of Reporting

Although Rio Tinto had a whistleblower hotline in place, it was merely a placeholder, with no real value to victims who were scared of speaking out. To avoid situations where employees are too afraid to report incidents they see or experience themselves, your business needs to implement an effective whistleblower program. 

Whistleblower hotlines should encompass a variety of communication channels. Employees can then choose the communication channel they are most comfortable reporting with, cultivating a culture of transparency and accountability. 

For example, younger employees are less likely to make a phone call to report incidents, so other means such as in-person meetings or web-based forms may be more appropriate. 

For web-based forms your company should also ensure that there is an option to remain anonymous. Given the traumatic impact of these situations, it is likely that many employees will choose to not have their identity revealed when reporting. This will further encourage employees to come forward. 

However, it is important that the whistleblower hotline can still communicate with the employee after they have made the report, to follow up during the investigation for more information, or to update them on the status of the investigation. 

With a whistleblower hotline in place, managers must make all of their employees aware of it, and encourage them to use it whenever they see or are subject to sexual harassment, bullying or racism. By promoting a culture of compliance, more employees will use the hotline, leading to more cases being investigated and a better working environment for the employees.

For more tips on how to set up an effective whistleblower hotline, have a read of this blog.

Implement a Strong Investigation System

Many employees at Rio Tinto complained that nothing was done about their cases after reporting them through the whistleblower program, particularly the women who were victims of sexual harassment. Your company needs to avoid this situation. A whistleblower policy or hotline may be the minimum required to tick off some of your compliance obligations, but if you do not follow up on reports then it will be useless when it comes to changing behaviour and protecting staff.

Investigating reports from your whistleblower hotline will deter potential offenders from committing their acts, out of fear of being caught and punished. It will also encourage more victims to report their cases as they have greater confidence that the offenders will be caught. 

Victims will at least be satisfied that something is being done about their case, rather than having to deal with the situation themselves as was what occurred at Rio Tinto. 

This system will also ensure those who have engaged in improper conduct are identified as having done so, and are appropriately dealt with. At the same time, those who have been wrongly accused of engaging in this behaviour will be cleared of any claims against them. 

Some general tips when conducting an investigation include:

  • Conduct interviews in a private, neutral place
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Ask follow up questions
  • Maintain confidentiality where possible
  • Preserve any evidence, documents, and electronic files with information relevant to the subject matter being investigated.

Further information on conducting internal investigations and how Polonious can help is available here.

Conclusion

Rio Tinto’s report revealed a company whose employees were subject to systemic sexual harassment, bullying and racism. The company’s workplace culture is what other companies should avoid cultivating, one which rewards its offenders and discourages its victims from speaking out. By developing a strong code of ethics and conduct, building a strong whistleblower hotline, and conducting effective investigations, your company will hopefully create a culture in which employees feel safe and motivated to work within. 

 

Widespread Bullying at Rio Tinto

Over 48% of Rio Tinto’s employees said they experienced some form of bullying

Internal Investigation

Rio Tinto failed to conduct investigations based on their whistleblower reports

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