101: Consulting effectively

Research shows that employee consultation is an essential component of successful change in organisations.[1] It helps to ensure that organisations’ policies, strategies and initiatives are informed by and meeting the needs of those that they impact.[2] Engaging employees in decision making processes is key to implementing a best practice workplace and has been shown to increase productivity, improve attraction and retention of staff, and minimise disputes.[3]

Through consultation, you can gather information about employees’ views on the workplace, what is working well and what could be improved—from junior staff through to executive management. It also demonstrates a genuine commitment to gender equality from leadership.[4] 

The value of employee consultation is recognised in WGEA’s Compliance Reporting program and is a requirement for the Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation.


What’s the aim of consultation?

It is important to be clear from the start about the purpose of your consultation. Some common objectives are to:

  • understand employees’ views and experiences of gender equality in the workplace
  • understand employees’ views and experiences of particular workplace gender equality issues, such as pay equity, flexible work, or sexual harassment
  • map your organisation’s current position and determine key focus areas
  • gain insight into the broad range of circumstances that influence gender equality in the workplace
  • collect ideas for  your gender equality business case or gender equality strategy.

What do you want to know? The aim of your consultations will also depend on what you already know and what you want to know about gender equality in your organisation. For example, you may have conducted an employee survey and now want to use targeted focus groups to further unpack your findings. Or perhaps you are starting your employee consultation with focus groups to generate early ideas and discussions, before testing these more widely with a survey.

The questions you ask will also depend on your context. For example, whether you are:

  • starting out on your gender equality journey and looking to understand the 'state of play' in your organisation
  • developing gender equality initiatives, such as developing a gender equality strategy, and looking for specific input or feedback
  • implementing gender equality initiatives and seeking ongoing, evaluative feedback about the experience and impact of these.

Who is the target group?

The aim of your discussions may need to be adjusted to suit different types of participants. For example, focus groups with:

  • leadership teams may be structured around understanding how committed leaders are to workplace gender equality
  • managers may be more concerned with the challenges of workplace culture and the support managers need to eradicate gender bias behaviour
  • non-managerial staff might concentrate on the employees’ experiences and perceptions of workplace policies and practices, such as the availability of flexible working policies.

What does good consultation look like?

There are a number of things you should consider before consulting your employees.

Remember, consultation should be done through formal mechanisms; it does not include informal workplace conversations.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be more appropriate to conduct employee consultation using online tools and platforms.

Pick the right method

The method you choose will depend on a range of factors, including the questions you want to answer, your sample size and time frames. You may also want to choose a mix of methods.  

  • Quantitative methods, like surveys, can help you quantify your employees’ opinions and behaviours. They can uncover patterns over time or between particular variables. They’re often better for larger sample sizes, allow greater anonymity, and produce data that’s quick to analyse.
  • Qualitative methods, like focus groups can help you explore the context for your employees’ opinions and behaviours. They are better suited to smaller groups and can prompt insightful discussions and problem-solving.

Continuously improve

Employee consultation is more than a one-time, ‘tick-a-box’ activity. It is best practice to consult at regular intervals so that you can measure progress and changes over time.

Ongoing consultation will also help you understand any emerging needs and priorities of your employees and explore practical ideas and solutions.

Make sure to use the findings from your consultations to inform your policies and strategies and generate positive change in your work place.

​​​​​​​Manage backlash

When engaging with staff, remember that people often hold divergent views on gender equality. Some may embrace the case for change, while others may resist. You might experience some resistance from staff when seeking participants, in the feedback they provide, or when you communicate your findings.

Those who resist gender equality often view the promotion of women as ‘unfair and not meritocratic’; and this attitude can be seen among men and women at all levels.[5] Chief Executive Women (CEW) and Male Champions of Change (MCC) highlight the need to first understand what drives resistance to gender equality, including:

  • lack of understanding
  • change fatigue
  • industry norms
  • cultural norms
  • fear and a zero-sum game mentality.[6]

To respond to resistance, VicHealth suggest organisations consider the following strategies:

  • Framing strategies: how you articulate, communicate, or ‘frame’ the initiative and explain why it’s important
  • Organisational strategies: how you involve leaders, individuals and groups, and address policies, practices and organisational structures
  • Teaching and learning strategies: teaching processes, the learning environment, the content and the educators
  • Individual strategies: Identifying allies, self-care and focusing efforts on those you can influence.[7]

Maximise engagement

There is a need to balance a systematic approach to data collection, with the practical demands and time constraints of your employees. Otherwise, you could risk ending up with limited, poor-quality data. To maximise your engagement, focus your consultations on the questions you really want to answer, rather than collecting excessive information on a wide range of items.   

Be inclusive

It’s important to hear the voices of different groups in your organisation. Key stakeholder groups to consider consulting include:

  • board members
  • CEO and executive team members
  • all levels of management
  • all employees
  • human resource team members
  • clients and suppliers
  • other key stakeholders.

When engaging employees, it’s also important to consider the diversity among your sample, including gender, age or other demographic factors of interest. You may wish to specifically target diverse groups for consultation.

When consulting smaller groups, make sure to keep employee confidentiality and privacy considerations in mind.  

Be ethical

Consultation on gender equality issues may require sharing sensitive or triggering information. For example, when consulting about workplace discrimination or harassment, or domestic and family violence. This can mean that employees may not feel comfortable sharing their views or experiences with their employers, particularly when there are power dynamics at play.

You should make clear to employees that participating in your consultation is voluntary, and that there are no negative consequences of choosing not to participate.

To ensure an ethical process, you should:

  • provide information about the purpose of the consultation
  • clarify how the information will be used, including data confidentiality
  • keep data in a secure place
  • not collect identifiable information
  • ensure protocols are in place to respond to any information that is disclosed that is confidential or concerning and ensure employees are appropriately supported, for example, with referrals to an Employee Assistance Program or a Harassment Contact Officer.

Feedback your findings

It is best practice to communicate your findings with employees who participated in consultation activities. This will make the evidence-base for decision making clear and demonstrate your responsiveness to any issues raised. It also builds employee trust in the consultation process, increasing the likelihood that they will participate again in future. 

    [1] Cortis, N and Hill, T. (2016). Drivers of organisational change for gender equality outcomes. Prepared for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. University of New South Wales: Social Policy Research Centre

    [2] International Labour Office, Bureau for Employers’ Activities. (2017). Gender diversity journey: Company good practices. International Labour Organization

    [3] Fair Work Ombudsman. (2014). Best Practice Guide: Consultation & cooperation in the workplace

    [4] Workplace Gender Equality Agency. (2019). Gender Equality strategy and guide

    [5] Chief Executive Women and Male Champions of Change. (2018). Backlash & Buy-In: Responding to the Challenges in Achieving Equality, pp.9

    [6] Chief Executive Women and Male Champions of Change. (2018). Backlash & Buy-In: Responding to the Challenges in Achieving Equality.

    [7] VicHealth. (2018). (En)countering resistance Strategies to respond to resistance to gender equality initiatives.