Is redress possible? Our anonymous contributor tells their story of navigating the Fair Work process – easier than expected, and with an impactful outcome.

I’d never seen anyone get proper redress. Why would it be any different for me? Instead, I chalked things up to experience and turned the powerless rage I felt into entertaining storytelling for friends. There I could rework a more favourable narrative, drawing laughs over absurd and pitiful caricatures of the perpetrators – it was the only salve I had.

Then I had a particularly troublesome experience, and the caricature wasn’t enough. I chose to take my salve in a new way. It was very interesting and I’m glad I did it. I engaged a lawyer and reported my boss to the Fair Work Commission.

We’ve all heard a horror story about the workplace culture inside some of the celebrated design practices in our industry. This story is for those caught in the honeytrap of great projects with truly awful bosses. What can you do?

Workplace horrors can have long and negative impacts for those on the receiving end. The exploiting of passion to extract long hours and low (or no) pay is a common story in the architecture profession. We hear about bullying management styles, tantrums, misogyny, sexism and racism. We hear about public humiliation, impossible deadlines, churn and burn probation tactics and manipulative gaslighting of those eager to please. When challenged, bullies can turn to beggars of forgiveness with a victim mentality.

But when a boss is the perpetrator, what hope is there for redress? Is the only answer to leave or to capitulate? It might not seem like a difficult choice but architects, being architects, are storm-chasers for exciting projects. The honeypot beckons and shines more brightly than the spider sitting on the pot’s rim. In the hapless worker bees go.

I have had my share of bad experiences, as both a witness and a recipient, and I never saw much possibility of redress. My despondency over these occasions, and the perceived fearful silence of architect peers, made me conclude that redress was a useless thing to pursue and that I should be the bigger person and walk away. I had nothing to gain and much to lose. Distress, misery, high anxiety, loss of confidence, PTSD, dwindling employment prospects were outcomes I had observed in other victims over the years. I’d never seen anyone get proper redress. Why would it be any different for me? Instead, I chalked things up to experience and turned the powerless rage I felt into entertaining storytelling for friends. There I could rework a more favourable narrative, drawing laughs over absurd and pitiful caricatures of the perpetrators – it was the only salve I had. Then I had a particularly troublesome experience, and the caricature wasn’t enough. I chose to take my salve in a new way. It was very interesting and I’m glad I did it. I engaged a lawyer and reported my boss to the Fair Work Commission. 

Architecture and the outside world

I’m embarrassed to say I came late to learning about the Fair Work Commission as a tool of redress. I was negatively conditioned as an architect – conditioned to not expect benefit or help outside my safely contained and exclusively credentialled world. Conditioned to uphold an agreeable gentleman’s demeanour.

It’s my observation that architects don’t easily admit outside advice, nor act if there is any risk of looking uncool. “Outside” can be treated suspiciously – as if it will undermine the architect’s authority. It’s ironic that this is the opposite of architectural design training, where we are trained to look for ways to go beyond perceived limits and admit outside influences, but that was the way the profession seemed to me. A deaf and dumb dinosaur stuck in a ditch that the dinosaur, itself, had dug.

The profession is deluded if it thinks it monitors and manages its own moral and ethical standards well. It’s killing itself with workplace cultures that belong in the deepest and darkest of pasts.

The problem, as I see it, is that there are hardly any visible success stories of employers being held to account for unacceptable behaviour. The abusive employers seem to get away with it all the time. Without a success story to share, often there is no hope. Without hope there will be no action, and unwanted behaviours have licence to continue. I believe that architecture is a terrific discipline, but I accepted that it was a terrible profession with no significant consequences for the rotten apples inside its barrel. Those rotten apples were really spoiling the whole barrel for me. However, my recent engagement with the Fair Work Commission gives me hope to come back to what I enjoy.

The road to Fair Work

I am not allowed to tell the story of what the trouble was about. But I can tell you that I’m glad I protested officially. Importantly, in this Parlour context, I want to say why I did it to give others food for thought. Lodging a Fair Work Commission complaint is useful when one seeks redress. It may even incentivise better workplace behaviours all round. My hope is that if architects better appreciate the ease of the Fair Work complaint procedure, then there might be fewer tyrants knocking about in our industry.

The Fair Work Commission offers a legislated process to evaluate disputes. Having had my own dispute managed by this process, I now think that the only reason I didn’t hear about these stories of redress is because there are cash settlements, agreements to not disparage, and associated gag orders before the cases get to court. My message is this – some people are calling out bad behaviour. They may be on the quiet, but they are happening and available as a course of action to any of us. Redress is possible. Redress happens. You just have to ask for it.

Everyone has a different idea of what redress looks like. For some, it is an apology. For others, a cash settlement to cover the periods of unemployment that often accompany toxic workplace recoveries – and a promise, from both sides, to not tell. On rare occasions, in our industry, it is a public battle in court for damages. The road to Fair Work wasn’t immediately clear to me and there were a few steps before I became convinced it was a good idea.

When people heard of my predicament, I received many sympathetic calls. Notably, only one architect out of the twelve who contacted me on the day of the incident, suggested I consult a lawyer. In contrast, 100% of the non-architects were emphatic that I must call a lawyer. Of course, my architect pals were happy that I found redress, via a legal process in the end – and a handful even promised to go all the way to Federal Court with me, as witnesses. It is telling, however, that the architects’ first reactions did not include recommending a legal claim for redress. I imagine that they didn’t understand how accessible the process is.

So, as a classically conditioned architect myself, I very predictably didn’t call a lawyer, I called my doctor instead. This was important, it turned out, as it added to a mounting pile of facts that gave me the confidence to eventually lodge my claim. The doctor recorded the experience as a traumatic one requiring sick leave and ordered a series of blood tests that measured stress.

The doctor also recommended mental health counselling. I booked appointments hoping to untangle what had gone wrong and looking for insight into what I was coming to painfully accept as a depressingly deep blight on the profession. I really thought that the post #MeToo era and 10 years of Parlour’s great advocacy work had improved things. I felt like a fool. External colleagues teased me about my naïve enthusiasm for the role. I was embarrassed by what was now a substantiated error of judgment on commitment. I wasn’t blind to the problem at hand. I was trying to figure out how to survive.

I welcomed the counselling to look honestly at myself – was it me who was the problem? It must be, I thought. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this line of work. It was the counsellor who woke me up with a slap and it’s a slap I want to amplify here – “A lot of you architects come to my rooms,” she said. “Your profession is atrocious.” It was not the gentle and softly probing question from a psychologist that I was expecting.

I then dipped my toe into the water of legal advice. My first call was to a lawyer of newspaper headline distinction. His paralegal said it would be $650 to talk to him for one hour. I shut it down immediately. That was a lot of money. I foresaw a bottomless pit of expenses. However, a conversation with a CEO acquaintance set me straight. They pointed out that legal expertise is an investment worth paying for. This was a lightbulb moment!

What really stirred me was not the good commercial odds of the gamble, but the manner of the CEO’s storytelling about their own experience of the Fair Work process. They saw it as a business transaction. One that was annoying as all hell because it was a real sap on their important CEO time; having to deal with this – this [cue exasperated splutter] – this stupid ingrate who used to work for them! The CEO was compelled by Fair Work to pay attention, and this was especially irksome. Right or wrong, they had to account for whatever triggered the claim.

That was the redress I wanted. An accounting. (It should also be said, as an aside to this, that I ended up striking a No Win No Fee deal with the lawyer. No money left my pocket).

Lodging a Fair Work claim

That’s the interesting part about a Fair Work claim. Accounting. The onus is on the boss to explain themselves. They are not innocent until proven guilty as we commonly understand disputes. You don’t have to work very hard to lodge a claim. Your lawyer does a little work. The employer’s lawyer does a little work formatting a response. But the employer themselves does most of the heavy lifting defending their actions. They have to account. And accounting takes time. Firstly, in a written response and then secondly – verbally during a two-hour conciliation meeting facilitated by a Fair Work conciliator. If the conciliation fails, the employer’s defence moves to court where everything becomes a public matter. It’s in both parties’ interest to avoid court. The costs to time, money and reputation increase quickly at this point.

In both the first two circumstances of accounting, my employer was peddling hard to redeem their reputation. This was helping me feel better already. But it is important to recognise that this is a dispute and that disputes are confronting and one should be prepared for that discomfort. The boss attacked the claim vigorously and this included attacking me personally, The value of legal support and representation was something I underestimated and was huge in this moment. My barrister gave me the confidence I needed to keep going.

I also had the opportunity to say something to the employer in the conciliation meeting – to repeat my claim and to reveal a bigger picture of what evidence I had to back up the claims, to elevate my threat if this went to court. But I took advice not to do this. As the lawyers said, “It’s conciliation. It’s a talkfest only. It’s confidential and no one is swearing oaths on any truths. That will happen when we get to court. Keep your powder dry and save it for that occasion.” I was relieved to follow this advice not only because it turned out to be excellent but because I was shaking.

I’m not going to pretend that I was Lady Liberty Leading the People with my strong arm and blazing torch held high. I could barely hold a pen, let alone speak. I told myself – “It’s just two hours of claim and negotiation, with the first half hour spent on lawyers identifying statute this and clause that. Not even a long movie. It’s nothing. Hold it together.” I made it through, but it was nerve-wracking. I won’t lie. Anyone doing this for the first time, accept that you’ll be nervous. But know that it won’t last long – and you’ll have such a burden lifted from your shoulders afterwards because you said something important and took a stand. Well done you.

After the employer’s speech, the discussion moved straight to negotiating a settlement, without comment. No judgment or blame was laid anywhere! The speed with which it went to negotiating was another surprise to me. It was as if this was the main event and, of course, it was. The offers and counter-offers went back and forth quickly, and an agreement reached. I walked out with some cash. I was thrilled.

Preparation effort

Every case is different so every approach to negotiation needs to be different too. Due to the power dynamic, I went straight for the law. I recommend this seriousness of purpose to readers too. Take your wellbeing, seriously.

That’s not to say that there was no cost for me. As well as six weeks between lodging the complaint and the hearing, and having this event in the front of my mind most of the time, there was also the time involved in documenting the whole sorry experience – every date and detail leading up to the act. I had to be sure I could back up everything. I wasn’t going in bluffing. I also spent time talking with people who had eerily similar unpleasant tales to tell. There was a pattern. I shored up support from people who were willing to testify, on my behalf, in the Federal Court, if it came to that. It was confidence building and it is to those people I owe a great debt. Most of them hardly knew me and sat away from me in the office. Some were even remote but had seen things happening.

They were all employee architects. Architects – coming out of the ditch!

Seeking redress

The Fair Work Commission has impact. As such, it gives people confidence to speak. Our professional organisations don’t engender the same degree of confidence. There are no processes in place to log and address employee complaints with the AIA or the ARB. There are no industry award or procurement penalties for recidivist practices. The lack of consequence in this arena is depressing but that is the reality. It is disappointing to discover the very people who we often look to in our industry, those who we admire and aspire to emulate, can’t officially help us repair some of the worst conditions that we labour under. Kerstin Thompson’s 2023 Gold Medal address, however, highlights the issue and is a recent salutary high point.

Instead of looking to those obvious leaders, we could instead look to the quiet and conscientious architect next to us and use our own individual agency. Are they bearing some unfair harassment? Do you see it? Check in on them. Take them aside quietly and say you will support them. Officially. If they want to complain. Show them this article. Reach into the ditch and help them out.

The Australian Institute of Architects and the Architects Registration Board do not have processes for holding employers to account. Professionals Australia, the union that represents architects, is not well known. The estimable Association of Consulting Architects and Parlour work hard to provide guidance for healthy workplace cultures. But no-one’s performance is measured against their guidelines or needs to respond to their advocacy. They are great resources, moral supporters and amplifiers of issues. For that I am enormously grateful. But they can’t mete out punishment to transgressors. Or encourage payments for pain and suffering.

For that, we have Fair Work. Oh – and WorkSafe. That’s worth checking out too.

If this post raises concerns for you, we recommend the Heads Up resources on bullying. This includes information for employees, including people experiencing bullying, and for employers and managers to help take action against bullying in your workplace

Parlour is developing resources to help support psychological safety in the workplace and eradicate bullying within the profession. This includes Understanding Bullying & Harassment, Psychological Safety & Wellness and Stepping Up on Safety and Wellness, published as part of the Stepping Up series, and the Guides to Wellbeing in Architecture Practice – including Trust & Transparency and Psychosocial & Psychological Safety.