The Commission recognises that the most important asset is its people, below you can read and listen to individual stories and discover what it is like to work at the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Tell us how you came to work at the Australian Human Rights Commission?
It was something of a journey. Originally I had completed my degree in humanities studies. Then at the age of 25 I went to London and worked in publishing as a picture editor for six years, which is when I also had my first child. I then moved with my husband to Sydney where being a stay at home mum was challenging. I wanted something that was completely removed from my domestic life. This is when I decided to enrol as a student of the Legal Profession Admission Board.
The first job I saw back in those days it was in the newspaper was a job at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC). I enjoyed the policy and legal environment at the centre; however what I loved most was the interaction with the community.
I then joined the Disability Discrimination Legal Centre (DDLC); I had a project management background and that was what they were looking for, someone who could run some outreach projects around disability rights. My work was 30% project management and 70% on the ground which meant that I had exposure to the alternative dispute resolution jurisdiction.
It was through my experience at the PIAC and the DDLC that I came in contact with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).
I applied for the legal job at the AHRC however I wasn’t successful, but that’s the good thing about putting in your CV, because a few months later the human resource team were in contact with me regarding contracts in the Investigations and Consolidations team.
Being an advocate in my previous roles, made the role of a conciliator very attractive; it enables me to see a bird’s eye of view of every situation. In addition, being a mother of two children I have found the flexibility at the Commission very rewarding. None the less you get this nice big picture which leads me here.
Tell us a little bit of what a typical day might be for a Conciliator officer?
First thing I do when I get into work is see if I have received any urgent enquiries. We are really busy; I have 35 – 40 matters at any given time. This isn’t a job where you ever clear your desk, you need to get your head around that you are always going to have a full quota.
Then I check my emails, I have to delegate my time, the role of a Conciliator has discrete components. I spend about two hours a day on the phone, with complainants and contacting respondents. I also do a lot of written work.
I work in the disability and ILO team, assisting people who are making complaints in employment in relation to criminal record, trade union activity or religious belief. They require in depth analysis because those complaints if declined, the complainant doesn’t have the right to go to court so it’s really a substantive decision. I try to set aside two days where I sit down for a block either morning or afternoon where I focus on these matters.
We deal with a lot of people in difficult circumstances; luckily I work in a very collegiate environment, where I am able to debrief. I discuss with my colleagues, not the person but the law behind the matters. I really enjoy that, I like the theoretical underpinnings. Making those connections is something I relish about the role.
In addition to these matters I work on human rights matters as well; these matters can be long, challenging and slow where the files can be enormous. This is where you need to set yourself your own time line.
What is the work environment like in the team?
Really good, I love it; I really like my immediate team. It is always difficult starting a new job, I felt very comfortable very quickly. We work really hard so I think everyone understands when you need to just stop look out the window it’s absolutely fine. I find it very collegiate; I would have no trouble seeking advice from any of my colleagues. I would go across to other teams in the Commission on certain matters and no one has ever made me feel like it is inappropriate to ask for advice or help from others. I would hope that people feel they could approach me too. I enjoy the work environment a lot.
What about the training and support in that way
The training we got when we first started was amazing. We had induction and conciliator training at the same time it was crazy, now looking back the training was excellent.
We have also participated in LEADR accredited mediation training as well so that has been an amazing opportunity and we all get to put that on our CV. There are always training sessions happening at the Commission, if there is particular training that you are interested in, the Commission will do their best to facilitate it. I feel that in terms of my professional development it has really been facilitated.
Any advice you would like to give someone who is interested in working for the Commission?
It’s challenging work, if you are the kind of person who has dealt with a wide variety of people out in the big wide world that would be of use to you. I do think if you haven’t had a wide exposure to an extensive range of people you should get involved in any type of volunteering, to extend your exposure. An important component is being able to write, not everyone in the Commission comes from a legal background so some experience in writing is definitely beneficial.
You just started with the Australian Human Rights Commission; tell us a little bit about how you came to be here
I came to be here by an accident and a little bit by design. I completed Arts Law and Philosophy, Political Science and Law. Then worked as a criminal law clerk for a while where I became a practicing lawyer. Then I decided I wanted to go back and do my Honours in Philosophy. I moved to Canberra to do this and accepted a job in Treasury, the agency that provides economic advice to the government despite my lack in economics background. I have worked there for four years in a range of different roles.
Treasury offered a secondment to the Australian Human Rights Commission, I applied for it and here I am. It has been a little bit of a roundabout journey but human rights have always been of interest to me.
So what are the things you think you will be working on here at the Commission?
I will be working in the Age Discrimination Team, which is a really great fit for me. At Treasury I worked in superannuation tax policy, which was to do with how we can assist individuals with their retirement and the way we smooth incomes over the course of their lives. Having a human rights take on age and what is necessary in policy development will be very interesting.
What have you found is different from being at the Commission and Treasury?
It is about a tenth of the size, we had a morning tea yesterday which was great because I got to see the whole Commission together and we all fit in one room, it was amazing. It is a very different atmosphere; in Treasury it is very formal, at the Commission so far I have realised it is not as formal which is absolutely lovely. Everyone is tremendously welcoming and the offices are beautiful, it seems to be on my second day a lovely place to work.
Is there anything you are expecting to gain whilst being at the Commission?
Yes, what frustrated me about working in a large agency are the layers you have to go through and the corporate knowledge of the way you come at particular policy issues. By being at the Commission I am really looking forward to and hoping there will be a different angle in which to view certain policy issues. So when I go back to Treasury I will have that experience and I will be able to plays devil’s advocate and bring a counter perspective, both to the benefit of Treasury when I go back and the benefit of the Commission when I am here.
Tell us a bit about your time that you have spent so far at the Commission
I have been at the Commission for about five years from the health sector, in particular the health education health promotion sector. My entire time here in Australia I have been working for NGOs or peak bodies. The Commission was my first experience of the public sector, it was my first experience of human rights despite the importance of rights in the health area and it was my first experience of quite high level policy work and a completely new political domain.
There has been an amazing amount of learning that I have experienced in this time. It has probably been the most valuable five years in my career so far.
I came as a program manager in the Race Discrimination team working on a program with Muslim communities. That was a successful program, at the end of it I was able to apply for other jobs internally and that is how I got my present position, which is working in the Scrutiny and Evaluation team. This is a new team, the Commission has undergone restructuring and an element of that has been to pull together a team and an approach that centralises systems and processes in the Commission.
The program work that I did was working externally with partners, communities, delivering projects and evaluating them making sure there were outcomes in human rights. This new work has been working almost with internal partners such as the various teams and the people within the Commission have been the partners and communities for me.
This has been an interesting move for me, this is the first time I have been working inside an organisation and really learning about organisational culture and how important systems and process are. Also how exciting it can be working as part of that process, to be working strategically, thinking about change and how to support the best happening for the organisation.
For me in particular, the absolute highlight of these five years has been the interest I have in evaluation which has now become part of my role here. Every program and/or project is evaluated, what I felt when I came to the Commission was there was a lot of interest with evaluation but a little bit of fiddling around how to progress and develop it here. The exciting thing for me is, I feel that I have had a concrete role with helping the Commission progress and become what is an enviable among other public sectors organisations, an enviable status of being an evaluating organisation.
How would you describe the working environment at the Commission?
I have a lot of friends and family who laugh at me because I consistently say I absolutely love my job. I posted on Facebook when I came back from the Christmas holidays a picture of my work station and I said I am really glad to be here. It wasn’t because I had a horrible Christmas it was because I was really excited and ready for work and a new year.
To try and actually pin point why that is, first of all it is because the work is very interesting, there is a massive load of work but the time goes quickly because it is interesting, strategic and changing which builds my skills.
That aside, the people I work with are just fantastic they are bright, smart, intelligent people and I know every day I am exposed to these people I learn something new. The other part of it, it’s a really nice environment right down to the offices which are beautiful, the conditions are good and I have a lot of flexibility.
Is there any advice you would give to someone who is interested in the Commission?
One of the reasons why I was happy to give my feedback here today was to give a point that from the outside the Commission can be seen as an organisation dealing with policy and law and I came here without experience in either of those. The one piece of advice is to encourage people and for them not to be daunted by what might be perceived as esoteric legal international rights environment. There are opportunities to work in so many different ways and when you actual get exposed it is very interesting. It is really an exciting and powerful environment to be in where you have an opportunity to influence those environments around you such as the policy and legislated environment and you don’t have to be a lawyer you don’t have to be a policy wonk to do it!