Unleashing the Power of Upstander Culture for Respectful Workplaces

Empathy, Ethics, Equality

Picture this: it’s Friday night, and you’re lying against your self-made pillow fort, watching a movie about social justice. The protagonist makes a fiery speech that would be labelled controversial by those who are favoured within a biased justice system. Perhaps you belong to that majority — perhaps you were born into it, whether it is a race that is more particularly preferred to be recruited for in your organisation over others, or whether it is wealth, gender, or beauty, or any of the other metrics that society historically judges a person’s worth by.


And despite your belonging to that privileged majority, you choose to side with the protagonist, who talks about an unfair caste system, or unequal wealth distribution, or the dangers of nepotism.


Here, in this moment in time, on a random Friday night as you lie against your self-made pillow fort, you are the protagonist. You understand her woes as she talks about a system that has failed her, you feel for her as she speaks of a brother who was killed over racist hate. Here, in this moment in time, you are someone else — someone who has suffered great injustice, someone who is seeking to rectify those wrongs, someone who is making sure no one will ever have to go through the pain of being a victim of all the wrongs you were a victim to. You can entirely relate to the other. 


This is what it means to have empathy, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to understand the pain they are going through, and to feel that pain as deeply as though it were your own.


Monday dawns, bright and early, and you leave for your office. You set down your cup of coffee on your desk, and you crack your knuckles as you mentally prepare for another hectic work week.

Later that day, your manager announces that you’re getting promoted. There is a moment of silence as you share a look with your colleague who you know to be more qualified than you for this promotion. You are also aware of your manager’s biases against those of your colleague’s nationality, and you know you cannot put this down to harmless coincidence. 

In this moment, do you put your foot down, and refuse the promotion? Do you bring to mind the movie you watched on Friday night— the protagonist with all her fiery speeches against nepotism, against racism, against the otherisation of already marginalised communities?


Do you put your foot down, and practice the ethics you swore to live by as you watched a movie on a random Friday night? Do you put your foot down, because you remind yourself that inequality is unacceptable?


Or was that all it was— a movie on a Friday night? And all those commiserations with your colleague when your manager made those targeted remarks against his race, all those moments where you reminded your colleague that her talent would let her break the glass ceilings that social biases had put up— does all that mean nothing in the face of a promotion?


Are you willing to accept this injustice, only because it is in your favour?


Are you willing to be a bystander, and allow your workplace to foster a toxic work culture that places the worth of people in biases and prejudice, rather than in who they are and what they do?


Because an Upstander Culture is only fostered in the presence of the three E’s: Empathy, Ethics, and Equality.


The same three E’s you would have to have instilled within your core values, if you were to say no to that promotion, and stand up for your colleague, even when— especially when injustice favours you.


These same three E’s at the core of your company and community DNA is what will see the worth of people in the work they do. It is what will give them the respect they are due. It is what will create an Upstander Culture worth working within.


I challenge you to ask yourself these hard questions, as there is no easy answer. I challenge you to explore this deeply because I have been in this very position. 

The Need For Respectful Workplaces

My journey to founding the Upstander Academy and the Bullyology movement began as I promised myself never to let anyone go through what I went through at my former workplace.

I was belittled, tormented, and berated— traumatised to the point where I was admitted to hospital.

Time has passed since then, and I’ve learnt to reflect over what happened at my toxic workplace, and I’ve come to understand the importance of creating a workplace where everyone feels respected.

Respect for employees should be at the core of a company’s culture. Not only does it guarantee better productivity, it also encourages positivity and growth in both personal and professional fields. 

And this respect can only come from practicing the core values of empathy, ethics, and equality— when you learn to see your co-workers and employees, not as cogs in a machine, but as complex human beings with lives and feelings of their own.

These values in practice generate a ripple effect that prevents the creation of, and helps fight against a toxic workplace culture that includes harassment and other breaches of human rights on the basis of sex, race, gender, etc. 

This is especially important in the light of the findings of the 2022 National Survey that suggest sexual harassment continues to be an unacceptably common feature of Australian workplaces, with one in 3 workers experiencing workplace sexual harassment in the last 5 years.


With statistics as alarming as that mentioned above, it became clear that the existing laws together with accepted social regulations alone were not sufficient in fighting toxic workplace culture.

 As a result, the hotly anticipated Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Act 2022 (Respect at Work Act 2022) was finally passed in both houses of parliament on 28 November 2022.

This Act calls for the making of a workplace culture that encourages preventative measures against harassment and discrimination, rather than focusing on responsive measures that are taken only after the damage has been done. This new positive duty that has been introduced imposes a legal obligation on employers to ensure the making of a workplace environment that does not breed harassment, discrimination and victimisation.

You can read more on the new Act here: 

The New Act is an immediate and impactful measure that has been taken to curb the rising trend of sexual harassment in the workplace, by implementing what is essentially an Upstander Culture.

Nurturing Respect In the Workplace With Upstander Culture

To be an Upstander, is to stand up for something, in defiance of power plays and politics.


To be an Upstander is to be empathetic, ethical, an enforcer of equality.


To be an Upstander is to contribute to a work culture that nurtures these core values, and confers employees with the respect they deserve.


To be an Upstander is to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is to live by a moral compass and a code of ethics that keeps you from committing injustice and also keeps injustice from being committed otherwise. It is to understand that everyone deserves equal treatment, regardless of their race, gender, age, sex, etc.


To be an Upstander is to nurture a respectful workplace founded on these core values of empathy, ethics, and equality.


Contrary to popular belief, to practice these values is not for the faint-hearted, and it is not restricted for women who are seen as “the more emotional sex” as I was once told. These core values are what define a good leader who wants to see their company thrive in a positive workplace culture.


It is only in instilling these values in the bedrock of your organisational culture that you will see growth — not just as individuals, but as a unit seeking betterment together.


Be empathetic. Be ethical. Be an enforcer of equality. Be an Upstander.


The Time for Respect is now.

Please check out my most recent book ‘The Upstander Leader’ 

You will also love ‘The Upstand Academy”