A Headmaster in my primary school days tried hard to instil a bit of pride in us by, amongst other things, making us wear the correct school uniform and attend a highly orchestrated weekly school assembly. We marched to this in class order and received prizes for a wide variety of things worth reinforcing. One of the prizes was the tidy case competition and it was given to a class. It was so long ago, we had school cases. The Headmaster knew enough about competition to understand that we would want to win this piece of paper.
I have often considered this early introduction into the changing of behaviour because there was a noticeable shift in the school during that year. His tenure was fleeting but he made an impact. The thing I recall most was that he made us aware of the old school motto. He blew the dust of old school banners and there it was: Manners Maketh Man.
He has been on my mind recently for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I read about a hospital in Victoria trialling a new workplace civility program. Basic manners, it seems, have been missing in everyday interactions and there is, at the same time, a disconcerting slide in safety and standards.
Academics, like Professor Michael Leiter, would not be surprised at a link between incivility and a decline in safety. Consider a nurse feeling hesitant about challenging an arrogant or dismissive doctor over a patient’s care. What will they do with their concern? Keep pressing? Factor in fatigue and you can see why any patient might be at risk in the circumstances.
I also read a piece by Tim Baker called Why We Need Dignity in the Workplace Now More Than Ever. Baker argues that the workplace is now one of the few places where human beings truly engage with each other. We are losing family ties, church groups, community gatherings. We don’t even chat to our fellow human beings at the bus stop anymore. Look around a café and note the close interaction going on with phones and laptops.
It should be reasonable to assume that along with saying please and thank you, adults should also know that it’s not OK to abuse people in the workplace. And so, a second reason for recalling Manners Maketh Man, is an employment law case I have followed since last year.
It first came in front of that reliable arbiter of common sense (cough cough), the Australian Fair Work Commission. A final ruling has been made that has truly appalled me and while my respect for this body’s ability to make a fair judgement was thin to start with, it has totally disappeared now.
In 2017, one Matthew Gosek, a union official, and that is extremely relevant in this case, was dismissed for calling his colleagues, over a five-hour period, f**king dogs and f**king c***s. Gosek had phoned colleagues at home in some cases, and young children had picked up the phone to hear this language and general stream of abuse. His employer, South 32, rightly stated, we will not and do not tolerate unacceptable behaviour.
But overturning every Code of Conduct in most businesses and the moral compass of sentient human beings, the first ruling from Commissioner Bernie Riordan, a former union boss, ordered that Gosek be reinstated. Riordan said that it was unfortunate but very commonplace language. Further to this, Riordan found that Gosek’s behaviour was mitigated by his depression and alcohol abuse issues. Well, that’s alright then.
I assumed that once South 32 appealed, that the highest bench of the Fair Work Commission would overturn this one, to fairly defend everyone’s right to come to work and be protected from such behaviour. In fact, they upheld the reinstatement order. And just to add to the insanity, they were at pains to say that they did not condone Gosek’s behaviour.
Dear Fair Work Commission; that is exactly what you have done. You have condoned the behaviour. You punished a company for doing the honourable thing and trying to create a decent place to work. You have told the employees and the children on the receiving end of the abuse that their rights are not important here. Management is now publicly humiliated. Gosek will undoubtedly strut about with impunity.
I had feelings of helplessness and anger when I read about this ruling. I am currently trying to think about it as a test. Eleventh century poet, Gabriol wrote that the test of good manners is to be patient with the bad ones. The fact that Gabriol also felt this way about a thousand years ago, suddenly made me feel less alone in my disappointment with the Unfair Work Commission.
I wonder what would happen if I rang the Commission and talked to their employees in this way? Perhaps I should ring up when drunk and let rip. According to their own wisdom, the language is commonplace and acceptable if I’m drunk, so I’m sure the staff will be happy to stay on the line.
I visited those old school grounds last week. I pointed out where the classrooms once stood to my son. It is now a park, with a rotunda and gardens and a nice monument to mark the fact that thousands of children were once taught here. My mind went straight to large skipping ropes, doing hand stands against fences and throwing bouncy balls up against classroom walls. I recalled the tidy cases and I remembered the school motto. I can only hope that most kids are lucky to have headmasters like the one we had, albeit briefly, who taught us to take a bit of pride in being well mannered.
I must continue to believe that it is right to defend dignity and manners in the workplace. The Goseks and Riordans of the world may have appalling standards, and for this moment in time, they can do their victory dance down at headquarters with the brothers, but we don’t have to join them.
Gosek v Illawarra Coal Holdings Pty Ltd t/a South 32 (2017) FWC 4574 3 November 2017.