You are going to hell

The well-publicised comments by Israel Folau recently highlight something many businesses must deal with daily. Your staff may not be as high profile, but the issues are just as thorny, writes Cathy Parker.

How would you feel if one of your staff told more than 80 percent of the world they were going to hell?
Whether you agree with them or not it creates a huge reputational risk for your business, especially if that person has a very high profile and has already been disciplined for similar behaviour.
We really felt for the management and board of Rugby Australia when Israel Folau did exactly this recently, stating drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters were all going to hell.
Whilst the mentioning of homosexuals in the comment got the most publicity, the other groups consigned to hell probably, in reality, encompass a far wider range of people.
Then there is the whole freedom of speech, freedom of religion argument, which, in reality, is a bit of a straw man in this case, as the issue is not his right to hold these beliefs, but in terms of his employment contract there are limits around how he can state his beliefs in a public forum, which preclude demeaning other people and groups.
Nevertheless, this does introduce a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t aspect to whatever Rugby Australia does, as whichever way the final decision goes, they will alienate a group of people – not to mention the fact he is their star player.
Many businesses must deal with these types of issues daily, maybe not as high profile, but just as thorny. How to discipline your star staff member without losing them? How to ensure staff are respectful of diversities? And how to manage the religious freedom discussion and the “my religious beliefs gives me the right to be a bigot” argument?
The best defence for a company is to have strong policies in place around these issues and a stated set of values it can fall back on. The company then needs to ensure it acts with a strong degree of consistency around these, regardless of who the staff member is.
When it involves a high-profile staff member it becomes an issue that means you need to bring in both HR and PR resources. But tread very carefully around any messaging to ensure you are cognisant of the issues and consistent in your messaging. As it is also an employment issue you need to make sure you are not breaching any employment privacy issues along the way, making it even more of a minefield.
So best wishes to Rugby Australia which is going through its own version of hell as I write.   M

Cathy Parker is a director of Adrenalin Publishing, the owner of Management magazine and sits on a number of boards.

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