HR-related National Principles
A recent Google search resulted in 249,000,000 responses. The reason for mentioning this will become clear later in this article.
The Preamble to the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations states: “a child safe organisation is one that creates a culture, adopts strategies and takes action to promote child wellbeing and prevent harm to children and young people”. Principle 1 states that: “Child safety and wellbeing is embedded in organisational leadership, governance and culture”. Principle 5 states: “People working with children and young people are suitable and supported to reflect child safety and wellbeing values in practice”.
In thinking about HR practices in the context of the National Principles, Principle 5 is clearly the most important. HR practices are a very important part of creating a child safe organisation. Schools employ many people and around 75 per cent of any school’s operational budget will be directed to employment costs. This 75 per cent only relates to paid employees including casuals. Child safe HR practices should also ensure that they address volunteers and contractors as well as paid staff.
Principle 5 lists key Action Areas. These are:
5.1 Recruitment, including advertising, referee checks and staff and volunteer pre-employment screening, emphasise child safety and wellbeing.
5.2 Relevant staff and volunteers have current working with children checks or equivalent background checks.
5.3 All staff and volunteers receive an appropriate induction and are aware of their responsibilities to children and young people, including record keeping, information sharing and reporting obligations.
5.4 Ongoing supervision and people management is focused on child safety and wellbeing.
Principle 5’s “indicators that this principle is upheld” states the following:
- The organisation emphasises its commitment to child safety and wellbeing when advertising for, recruiting and screening staff and volunteers.
- Duty statements, selection criteria and referee checks demonstrate children and young people are valued and respected, commitment to child safety and wellbeing, understanding of children’s developmental needs and culturally safe practices.
- Employers, staff and volunteers in an organisation have completed background check requirements.
- Staff and volunteers understand the child safety policy and procedures of the organisation and meet their record keeping, information sharing and reporting responsibilities.
- Ongoing staff support, supervision and performance management processes involve child safety elements.
- The organisation maintains suitable record keeping systems and protocols for staff and volunteers.
- The organisation has a range of tools and processes to monitor and mitigate risk.
This Article will focus on Action Area 5.1 as this will require considerable attention by schools. (The first two “indicator” dot points above are relevant to Action Area 5.1.)
Many schools’ HR practices have, in the past, relied mostly on working with children checks (or their equivalent) and national police checks to meet child protection-related HR requirements. Schools will now need to do a lot more to meet the expanded requirements.
Advertising and Employment Packages
Child safe HR practices include practices that discourage applications from people who are unsuitable for working with children. Language in job advertisements should make clear that the school is a child safe organisation. It will also be important to make clear that applicants will be required to demonstrate an understanding of child safe principles and that their work history and references will be checked thoroughly.
The school’s child safe code of conduct and child safe policy (or a high level summary) should be provided in employment packages sent to those inquiring about the position, along with selection criteria about attitudes to, and the application of, child safe principles to which applicants must respond when completing their application.
Screening and Suitability Assessment of Candidates
Assessing suitability to work with children requires more than just criminal background checking. While working with children checks (or their equivalent) are a useful tool to keep children safe, they are only one part of creating a child safe environment. An over-reliance on working with children checks (or their equivalent) as the sole employment screening tool can in fact increase, rather than decrease, the risk of child abuse or harm.
Screening and Assessment using ‘Values Based Interviewing’
The interview process is an important step in identifying people who may pose a risk to children. Values-based interviewing should be used to assess the values, motives and attitudes, and therefore the suitability, of candidates to work with children.
Many schools will need to review the types of questions that they ask potential candidates at an interview, to ensure that they include interview questions that assess a candidate’s values, attitudes and understanding of professional boundaries and accountability. Some examples of questions that fit in this category are (see Victorian Department of Health and Human Services Child Safe Standards Toolkit: Resource Five and DFAT Child Protection Guidance Note April 2019 Screening):
- Describe a time when you had to manage a child whose behaviour was challenging.
- What qualities have you observed in others that you have admired, particularly in relation to their work with or care of children?
- How would you describe appropriate professional boundaries in the context of this role? How do you ensure that you maintain those boundaries?
- X is a child-safe organisation. What do you think that means?
- We sent you a copy of our code of conduct before this interview. What do you think of the code?
- If you were concerned about the actions or behaviour of a co-worker towards children, how would you respond?
Screening and Assessment using Referee Checks
The Google search question that resulted in 249,000,00 hits was “What questions can I ask employment referees?”. Referee checking is an increasingly important element of recruitment practices and one that schools should review to ensure that they are speaking to the right referees and asking the right questions of referees.
Insisting on obtaining a reference from the immediate past employer of the candidate and for the referee to be not just another teacher or ‘friend’ at the previous place of employment but the principal or very senior staff member, as well as verifying the identity of the referee, are all part of child safe recruitment practices. Reference checks should be verbal wherever possible, as written references are of little or no value.
The Victorian Commission for Children and Young People A Guide for Creating a Child Safe Organisation and Catholic Professional Standards Ltd Standard 5 Tools and Guides Referee Checks provide some examples of questions to ask referees:
- Have you directly observed the candidate interacting with children? If so, can you describe the types of relationships and interactions the candidate has had with children and if not, can you describe their strengths, skills and qualities that might make him or her suitable to take responsibility for children?
- Would you employ the candidate again?
- Do you have any concerns about the candidate working directly with children? Did you have any disciplinary matters relating to the candidate or concerns about their adherence with the organisation’s Code of Conduct?
Questions in relation to whether the candidate has any particular skills they need to develop in relation to working with children and maintaining child safety are also important.
While some referees may be reluctant to give voice to concerns or to advise a potential employer of past allegations made against a candidate because of concerns about defamation, as it is such a critical area, it is important to give the referee the opportunity to indicate that they “would rather not say”, and not just give a yes or no answer. This would then be an indicator that further investigation is necessary.
In the interests of fairness, where there have been negative comments from a referee, consideration should be given to asking the candidate to comment on those issues, while preserving the anonymity of the referee if possible. This may provide greater accuracy in ascertaining the facts and will also provide further insights into the candidate.
A final point to note is that the federal Privacy Act applies to personal information collected from and about a job applicant (who then does not subsequently become an employee) when that information is recorded.
The challenge for many schools is having sufficient resources available to meet these requirements. Only a relatively small number of schools have staff that are able to spend the majority of their time on HR and recruitment-related activities. Resourcing and ‘top down’ commitment to child safe HR practices will need support from the school leadership (Principle 1 mentioned above) particularly where those schools have limited HR resources. The insistence by both the school principal and the school board that the National Principles, and especially Principle 5, are to be followed in all of the school’s HR practices will provide an important mandate to those responsible for HR and recruitment in a school.
With the advent of the expanded ‘whistleblower legislation’ that comes into operation on 1 July 2019 (as discussed in our recent School Governance article) it is even more important that schools have in place robust HR policies and procedures. Established HR policies and procedures and internal complaints and grievance processes enable schools to reduce risk. They provide staff members with well understood ways of raising concerns as alternatives to ‘blowing the whistle’ under the new and untested whistleblower regime.
About the Authors
Jonathan is a Senior Consultant working with CompliSpace education clients. He has more than 10 years experience in the school sector as a teacher, compliance and legal adviser and more recently as a Business Manager. Jonathan has been a solicitor for nearly 30 years and worked in both private practice and community legal centres.
Deborah de Fina
Deborah recently completed five years working with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse where she assisted the Royal Commission to establish the Private Session process and subsequently managed its legal aspects. Prior to working with the Royal Commission, Deborah had her own successful consulting practice where she specialised in the statutory child protection system, legal issues facing children and vulnerable people, and legal aid. She also spent more than nine years at Legal Aid NSW, as a child protection solicitor, Senior Solicitor and then Solicitor in Charge, Child Protection. Deborah holds a Juris Doctorate from the Columbia University School of Law, a Master of International Affairs from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and a Diploma in Law from Sydney University.
Svetlana is a Senior Consultant at CompliSpace. She has over 20 years of experience in strategic and operational human resource management, occupational health and safety, and design and implementation of policies and change management programs. She has held national people management responsibility positions in the public and private sectors, and is now the content specialist at CompliSpace for harmonised WHS (and OHS/OSH in the other two states), HR, Privacy and general compliance matters for Not-for-profits. She holds a LLB , Masters in Management (MBA), Master of Arts in Journalism, and a Certificate in Governance for Not-for-profits.