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No. 160 – How can I protect my employees from transphobic customers?

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19 June 2024

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a Minute?” This week: protecting employees from transphobic customers, an ignored internal job application and a lunch situation that’s breaking the law.

We have several openly trans women who work in our retail stores. They are beautifully presented, great retail associates and excellent employees. Despite this, we have recently received numerous customer complaints about these staff members (who often work on the same shift), in which the customers misgender the women or use transphobic language. How can we support our staff members and also address the complaints?

The most important thing for you to do is support your team members. Transgender retail workers already face frequent customer abuse, and you have a positive duty to do all you can to stop it. I am going to make the hopeful assumption that a customer who would speak about one of your employees in such a denigrating way is not a customer you value keeping. So your response needs to be swift and firm and focused on reminding your staff they are perfect just as they are, they are wonderful employees who are valued and supported, and their wellbeing is your priority. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission has a range of helpful resources for ways you can support your transgender employees.

As for the complaint, the customer is not always right, especially if they are choosing to be transphobic. I would remind the customer (if you feel the need to respond to such vile treatment) that there are laws in Australia protecting the rights of all workers, that you stand behind those laws, and you stand behind everyone in your team.

I work for a government agency which recently ran a large recruitment drive for a new project, hiring 300 new positions. After applying, I assumed I would at least have been offered an interview. However, this was not the case. One of my colleagues who applied also didn’t get through and the feedback they received was that their application hadn’t even been read. I feel let down by the company and by my managers because half my team has left for the new project and I have to take on their load. If I’m also told my application wasn’t read, what can I do?

It sounds like the recruitment process was a debacle. Either there were far more applications than they could handle, or it was simply poor planned and executed. Either way, I understand why you are unhappy. The very least you hope when applying for a role, especially in the same organisation, is that someone reads your application.

I would try to understand what has happened in the process. Why is it that some applications haven’t been looked at, and then how can you be properly considered? I know you must be very disappointed and this is one case where I recommend you don’t take it personally (which I know is hard) but put the outcome down to a disastrous process. If you are still keen for the position, find out what you need to do to be considered again and reinforce how keen you are.

We are only given half an hour for lunch each day, have no lunchroom and work in a manufacturing plant miles away from any shops. Senior management, who are on eye-watering salaries, either don’t have lunch, eat at their desks or conveniently go out to a club once or twice a week for a two-hour meeting. We are all sick of sitting at our desks for nine to 10 hours a day. It is unhealthy both mentally and physically. The HR manager has discussed it with the chief executive numerous times, who says it’s not important. Surely, we have some rights? We are suffering.

Your CEO will realise this is important when they learn they are breaking the law. Under various workplace health and safety laws, your employer has to provide access to hygienic facilities for preparing and eating meals while at work. In Victoria, for example, if there are more than 10 employees, a dining area needs to be provided, separate from any work area. If you have fewer than 10 employees, you are still entitled to somewhere to eat that is separated from work processes. In NSW the situation is similar, and employers must provide eating facilities to employees.

If you have a workplace health and safety officer on site, ask them to investigate. If not, let the HR manager inform the CEO they are breaching the law and have a duty to rectify the situation as soon as possible.

To submit a question about work, careers or leadership, visit kirstinferguson.com/ask (you will not be asked to provide your name or any identifying information. Letters may be edited).

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