Setting the benchmark for equal opportunity
Australia's largest and only national private health insurer, Medibank Private, doesn't believe in simply following the pack when it comes to equal opportunity (EEO) - it intends breaking new ground.
Equal employment opportunity (EEO) is often paid lip-service by organisations and individuals who take the view that "it doesn't affect me".
However, for Medibank Private, which ceded from the Health Insurance Commission just two years ago to become a government business enterprise, not only is equal opportunity vital to the well-being of its employees and the organisation, but the health insurer is setting a new benchmark where EEO is concerned.
Says managing director, Mark Burrowes: "We want to shape a workplace that is harmonious and where employees feel valued and free of discrimination and harassment. We want people to enjoy their time with us and in the same vein we want to be an organisation that people are eager to join because of the values we stand for.
"We believe that positive action equals a valued workforce and in essence, we want to be an employer of choice!"
Mr Burrowes says Medibank Private is taking a holistic approach to EEO. "Many organisations believe that an EEO policy need only be enforced when employing people. This just isn't enough.
"We have undertaken the full breadth of the policy, allowing it to provide a blueprint for workplace behaviour - behaviour that is designed to eliminate sexual harassment and discriminatory behaviour towards people because of their race, age, gender or physical or mental ability.
"Our policy provides staff with a code of ethics when it comes to relating to their colleagues and customers."
Prior to devising an EEO policy, Medibank Private took on the services of The Replay Group (pioneers in discrimination risk management) to conduct a full audit of the health insurer in order to establish a framework for a future program.
"What emerged from the study was the importance of having an EEO contact officer and advice line external to the organisation, something no other organisation, to our knowledge, has in place.
"Most companies have internal contact officers who generally take on this role in a voluntary capacity in addition to their other full-time job. Generally these individuals aren't in positions of seniority and carry little clout and as a result, research shows that staff are unlikely to contact them (fewer than 5 per cent do) believing they won't make a difference.
"Ironically, it is usually line managers who receive complaints about discrimination but they generally don't have the appropriate training to respond effectively."
Mr Burrowes says a lack of suitable internal mechanisms often results in employees going down the path of last resort and taking their complaint to the EEO Commission. "Early intervention could have prevented this happening," he says.
Where Medibank Private has broken new ground is in the implementation of an external advice line (to the Replay Group). "This is crucial to an organisation like ours which has offices and retail centres scattered across the length and breadth of Australia.
"We needed to know that employees even in our most remote locations would have the same quality of advice as their city colleagues, that they'd have access to an outside adviser who would treat their problems confidentially and who would be available to them after-hours.
"The use of an external provider will meet these requirements."
According to the Replay Group's managing director, Mary Jones - whose company will head up the Medibank Private workplace resolutions advice line - calls may involve employees simply establishing whether or not their problems are legitimate and if they are, what they as individuals could do.
"However, where the situation requires some intervention, we work in consultation with the relevant parties to resolve the situation.
"In addition, the advice line is also there for management who come up against problems and need some strategies for resolving them."
According to Mr Burrowes, the company's focus is on educating and empowering staff and management to prevent discriminatory situations before they occur.
Another first for Medibank Private on the EEO front has been to train all staff where discrimination is concerned. "With the growing incidence of employees now taking both the organisation and the person responsible for discrimination to court, there is a growing need for all employees to have an in-depth understanding of what constitutes discrimination," says Mr Burrowes.
"Because of the difficulty of training staff in business units across Australia, we have implemented a cascading system of training whereby management will be fully trained in all aspects of EEO.
"These managers are then accountable for training their own staff members."
In fact, so good is the training that all employees will have the option of linking it in with a graduate course in E-Business & Communications at the Swinburne University of Technology - Lilydale.
Medibank Private has also broken new ground on the EEO training front by putting together customised videos that deal with typical workplace scenarios such as how to deal with inappropriate E-mail and harassment in the workplace.
"Because we use our own uniforms and typical workplace situations in the videos, they make more sense to staff."
The final plank in Medibank Private's EEO policy has been the development of cultural awareness training. "Given that ours is a multicultural society and that Medibank Private is one of the largest private health insurers of overseas students, providing our frontline staff in retail centres with the right mechanisms for recognising and dealing with people from other cultures, is crucial.
"We want to ensure that the respect and value we place on our diverse workforce is extended to our customers".
Ultimately, says Mr Burrowes, Medibank Private is about encouraging employees to take responsibility and accept EEO as part of their daily working life!