Cultivating a good workplace culture and taking care of our people should be priority number one

Susanne Legena

17 Apr, 2018

"As part of our wrap-up on the Spotlight on Quality Principle 9, we interviewed Plan International Australia’s CEO on her personal perspectives of people, culture, workplace, and the Code. Susanne Legena shares a refreshingly honest approach, highlighting the challenges she has encountered along the way, along with some of the successes. Susanne is a proven leader and an ACFID Board member.”  Marc Purcell, ACFID CEO.

What does Quality Principle 9 (people & culture) mean to you? 

Our staff and volunteers are the beating heart of Plan International Australia. We are, after all, in the business of human development. Our people are beyond extraordinary. They frequently put themselves in difficult and sometimes dangerous situations to live our mission. Keeping our people safe, happy and forever learning is a fundamental part of my job as a CEO, because we can't run our organisation without the right people, who are in the right roles, doing the right things.

As the CEO of PLAN Australia International, as well as an ACFID Board member and plenty of other leadership positions in your working life, how have you contributed to protecting, supporting and valuing the people in the organisations in which you lead?

I take the protection, support and value of our people at Plan International very seriously. Some of the best lessons have come from initially getting it wrong.

I’ll give you an example. When we started working in Papua New Guinea, a female staff member came to see me, upset about what had occurred when she'd arrived in the country. She'd arrived and the taxi driver wouldn't take her to the designated hotel in our safety and security manual as it wasn't deemed to be in a safe part of town.

Luckily for us this staff member was very experienced in the field and found her way to another agency's headquarters, explained her situation and received a recommendation for a safer hotel option. She made the decision to stay there instead. Understandably, she was upset.

I left that meeting and went to see our Director of People and Culture and relayed the conversation I'd just had. We immediately updated our safety protocols.  Our staff know that when it comes to safety, we will support them 100%, but she should never have been put in that situation in the first place.

The thing that has stayed with me from that conversation was imagining having to call to explain to a family member that harm had come to their loved one because of a failing of our security protocols. Our staff and volunteers are essentially our work 'family' and I try to remember that in all my dealings because I never want to have to make that call.

When it comes to valuing our people, we have a practice at Plan International where we make a concerted effort to pause to celebrate our successes and to acknowledge each other and the hard work we do. Where someone has gone above and beyond, we make sure that person knows that we see them and we appreciate them. Our staff do call each other family, and I think that’s because we genuinely care about each other as people, as well as colleagues. As a leader, I want every employee to know that they are valued, they will be heard and that their safety and security is always front of mind.

What are the risks of not doing this well?

The harsh truth is, if you let it slide, someone could be hurt as a result. In addition, your credibility and integrity as a leader is damaged if you say one thing and then do another.

Recruiting and retaining good people involves providing the necessary frameworks and policies, which essentially guide people to be effective in their roles. You also need your staff to understand and live your organisational values through their behaviour to each other, to partners, to donors and to beneficiaries. This ensures your culture is clear and aligned.

In the development sector, we can’t offer people large salaries, flash company cars and long lunches on the corporate credit card, but we do have incredibly meaningful missions and rewarding causes which attract talented and hard-working people. That talent and dedication mustn’t be taken for granted. A good culture makes for a happy workplace and satisfied staff.

Can you talk a bit about the need for strong anti-sexual harassment and anti-bulling policies in the workplace, especially in light of the #MeToo campaign? 

Protecting our staff and beneficiaries from harm has never been more important. As #MeToo swept around the world last year, our sector was having its own #MeToo moment.

The sexual misconduct issue that began with an incident in Haiti seven years ago cracked open the sector and in a way, gave those who had been silent or ignored an opportunity to speak up about where they’d been wronged.

This was so much more than a public relations crisis. It was a serious wake up call for all of us to take a good hard look at our policies, procedures and our culture and behaviour. Not only to do all we can to protect our beneficiaries but to protect our staff, too. It’s true that even the workplace, even our sector, is not a safe place for women. It’s an uncomfortable truth that needs to be confronted.

I reached out to all of our staff to remind them of our codes and the expectations in relation to their behaviour and also how to call out behaviour not in keeping with our values. In response, a staff member approached me and told me of experiences in the field that had made her or her colleagues feel unsafe, awkward and angry. These were to do with dealings between Plan International staff and partners and while managers may have been told about these incidents it often has not gone further, or may have been dealt with 'informally.'

As a result, we had no formal record and staff concluded that while our child protection and safeguarding policies were strongly upheld, when it came to matters affecting staff, we were less committed to taking action. This was difficult to hear and to acknowledge but I really appreciated the honesty of this interaction because we can't change what we can't see. 

Because of this, we're in the process of a deeper review, we’ve updated our reporting procedures and explicitly set out how informal and formal approaches to these matters may be appropriate and necessary. We're committed to the care and respect of our people though this process and have attempted to take a trauma-sensitive in the approach. We'll run specific training for key contacts and managers and we'll update the way we keep employee records and report on incidents so we can track what action has been taken and address systemic concerns. My hope is that no-one at Plan International ever has to say #MeToo, but if they do, that they feel completely safe and supported to address it.

When it comes to anti-bullying policies, it can help to talk through real life examples and to talk about practical ways they were dealt with. Often anti-bullying training can be too legalistic and hard to relate to. So at Plan, we’ve had an informal group of program managers meet to discuss and share experiences and learning. We are now going further and considering cultural safety training and a more explicit anti-harassment policy. It’s wrong to assume that our sector is immune from this kind of behaviour. We are a microcosm of the world and unfortunately it does happen. In my experience, we aren’t always good at dealing with conflict and calling out the subtle but devastating forms of micro-aggressions that contribute to alienation and exclusion. Having a culture that is reflective, that acknowledges errors and offers a pathway to redemption is important to me. If we are to have people from diverse backgrounds and experiences, we have to work harder to make the workplace a more welcoming and pleasant place through a shared understanding of values and behaviours.

We have shared our policy on Discrimination, Harassment, Bullying and Complaints Resolution with ACFID and it is located, for the benefit of other member, on the Good Practice Toolkit.

ACFID members are required to specify their expectations of professional conduct for all staff and volunteers – encapsulated in a Code of Conduct that must include reference to child safeguarding behaviours. It would be great to understand your perspective on this? (reference 9.4.1)

We have put a lot of work into reviewing our safeguarding processes in light of the recent sexual misconduct issue.

We also have anti-bullying and harassment policies and staff do training around these policies on an annual basis. Recently, we ran training for key managers on how to respond to a staff member experiencing family violence.  In addition to this, all staff are required to do a half-day training session on child protection. I believe Plan International has some of the most stringent child protection requirements in the industry and while it is time-consuming, it is absolutely crucial work.

We know that deeper work on power, gender and culture must be an ongoing process and we aim to learn from others in the sector via ACFID networks and the HR community of practice. This is a great way to take the best from members and learn from what is going on globally and through Federations. 

Have you taken the refreshed and revised ACFID Code of Conduct e-learning module? What did you think of it? (reference: Code E-learning)

I thought the ACFID Code of Conduct e-learning module was straightforward and easy to do. Certainly our staff have taken the module and I recommend all CEOs encourage their people to make time to do the same.

  • Susanne Legena
    Susanne Legena

    Susanne is an executive manager with more than 15 years’ experience in corporate communications, strategic planning, issues management, public relations and marketing in the public and not-for-profit sector. Susanne believes in the dignity and value of all people. She is interested in leadership, change and possibility.

    Susanne joined Plan International Australia’s executive team in 2011 and was appointed as the organisation’s CEO in 2017. She sits on the ACFID board of directors.

    Before joining Plan International Australia, she was Chief of Staff for the Victorian Minister for Energy and Resources and the Arts and Corporate Communications Manager at the Victorian Department of Infrastructure. 


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