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Protecting the vulnerable through governance

SPONSORED: Community institutions play an important role in protecting vulnerable people and this is how they can improve their work

The community has been confronted recently by examples of harm to vulnerable people arising from the conduct of some of Australia’s largest institutions.

These stories have exposed cultural failings, inadequate governance standards, and a lack of accountability for preventing and responding to misconduct. They also represent a departure from community expectations about the responsibility of institutions to keep vulnerable people safe from harm.

Any institution operating in the community has a chance of engaging with vulnerable people and the role of governance in protecting these people from harm is critical.

Harms against the person

Institutions may be involved in many forms of harm, but none are more unconscionable than the sexual abuse of a child.

In December last year, the Royal Commission into Institutional Reponses to Child Sexual Abuse handed down its final report, bringing five years of inquiry to a close.

Its report revealed that too often governance structures have failed to protect children from harm. In its many case studies, a pattern emerged of failures in reporting and record-keeping, risk management and a lack of understating of the impact of incidents on victims and their families.

Through its recommendations, the report underscored the importance of leadership, governance and culture in protecting children from harm.

The core message of the report for directors is that child safe organisations can only be created as a result of deliberate and strategic action at the board level. All boards that work with children should pause to reflect on whether their organisation provides a safe physical and online environment for children.

While much can be done by way of systems and controls, nothing has as powerful an influence over the safety of vulnerable people as a positive and strong culture that prioritises their wellbeing.

A culture of safety

One way to focus on protecting vulnerable people from harm is through placing a strong emphasis on the importance of safety in organisational culture.

This approach is well-established in industries such as mining, construction and manufacturing where high-risk operations are part-and-parcel of doing business. In these industries, safety is generally a standing board agenda item and is often strongly linked to remuneration.

Workplace health and safety is highly regulated and the consequences of accidents in this space can be devastating. It is no surprise then that safety is embedded in the culture of these sectors and, consequentially, that workplace accidents have been in decline for the past decade.

Developing awareness of safety in sectors that do not operate in such obviously high-risk environments may be more challenging. To position safety as a dominant feature in organisational culture, a more expansive view must be taken. At the heart of this challenge, boards must be prepared to confront the reality that their staff, customers and stakeholders may be vulnerable and accept an appropriate degree of responsibility for their safety.

What boards can do

Boards play an important role in identifying and operating the levers that help instil a culture that prioritises the safety of vulnerable people. In doing this, boards should consider how safety should be embedded in strategy, risk management and performance incentive frameworks.

For most organisations, the levers that influence culture will be dispersed across a range of systems and processes. In seeking to create a culture that provides for the safety of vulnerable people, boards should ask questions such as:

  • What types of metrics are used to report on safety (including a focus on lead indicators for safety such as training, staff engagement, near misses, customer complaints and risk reduction);
  • How people are incentivised to behave safely (whether safe behaviours are rewarded, including rewarding reports of unsafe activity and enforcing consequences for unsafe practices);
  • Whether there is an understanding of vulnerable stakeholders (including whether there is a mechanism for meaningful engagement with such people);
  • How accountability for safety is distributed (particularly how recurrences are addressed, or risks mitigated); and
  • Whether safety is reflected in the organisation’s values and principles (and how these are given life in the organisation).

In considering these matters, there must be an alignment between company interests and the safety of vulnerable people. Where the two depart, the risk of misconduct and of harm is great.

Where safety and success are intrinsically linked, a culture of safety can emerge for the benefit of all.

Click here to learn more on governing protect vulnerable people.

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