How business owners can navigate January 26

The recent decision by Woolworths to remove all Australia Day merchandise from their stands in response to falling sales and sensitivity to the controversy has reignited the annual debate of what to do with January 26.

Patrice Pandeleos, founder of Seven Communications, explains why business owners grapple with the increasingly complicated holiday.

Australian business titans such as Woolies, Telstra and Channel 10, along with the Federal Government, are joining thousands of businesses nationwide allowing their employees to choose whether to take the day off or work the holiday and replace the day off with an alternative down the track.

This shines a light on the growing difficulties that many business owners, particularly small to medium-sized businesses, face in navigating the minefield of controversies and sensitivities. Many owners are placed in a tricky situation, being drawn into a political ground that they often simply don’t wish to play in.

So what are the rules?

Currently, the choice lies with the employer. Fair Work says that there are allowances to substitute a public holiday for another day if agreed upon by both parties but notes that the employer cannot “exert undue influence or pressure” on their employees to do so.

When considering which action to take there are two primary aspects to consider to ensure that your move is calculated and right for all parties involved:

Don’t risk it! Know your legal and operational considerations

This is a chance to examine the obligations that you or your employees have regarding public holidays or indeed on January 26th itself. All organisations will differ in this area but through examining the awards and contracts of your employees you can best identify exactly what is and isn’t feasible within your business. Within your business, is there a benefit to simply having all employees off at once? Does it actually benefit your company to spread the days out and ensure that a whole day of trade is not missed? If allowances are made, what time frame can they select their new day within?

View this as an opportunity to review the legal considerations necessary for your employees as well as the operational tactics you incorporate. These can be utilised for future holidays outside of Australia Day and may provide valuable insights.

Your staff are watching: Cultural sensitivity and employee morale

Maintaining this sensitivity and morale is a critical aspect of emotional leadership and goes a long way towards employee satisfaction and retention. Does your company employ any individuals for which this occasion is particularly sensitive? Is there an opportunity for an open discussion where individuals feel they can make their voice heard in a safe space? Either way, this certainly opens up an opportunity to communicate with your employees and find out exactly what it is that they value. If there is a feeling that they would like to be empowered to change their day off and feel uncomfortable working, then have the discussion and work towards an outcome where all feel satisfied. On the other hand, if there is impartiality towards the date, then you would be going against Fair Work’s guidelines of exerting undue influence.

From these discussions, a wider understanding of employee sentiment, values and perspectives can be gained, all of which are extremely valuable in future decision-making outside of political messages.

Make sure your PR is done right

Australia Day’s growing controversy presents a challenge for businesses and brands, particularly high-profile or public-facing businesses, requiring an aligned consideration. When sending messages regarding the date, both internally and externally, careful consideration of tone and message is critical in avoiding potential scrutiny from a range of stakeholders. As these messages are crafted, consider all angles including who it’s going to, whether the content is considerate of the date’s sensitivities and whether its message takes into account your broader business practices. Alignment and authenticity to your wider business are crucial – tokenistic gestures or actions that go against broader practices have repeatedly landed large businesses in hot water and should be avoided at all costs. This requires a proactive approach that is authentic, empathetic and considerate.

Navigating this time is particularly tricky for business owners, and the decision you make will be based on factors unique to your organisation. Ensuring that the above have been considered, an equitable balance between operational and legal needs with employee sensitivity and satisfaction is easier to make. View this as an opportunity to get to know your business better, the way it works and the people it employs. Understanding these factors is invaluable as a business owner and can lead to better operations far past January 26.

Patrice Pandeleos is founder of Seven Communications


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