Most large companies like to brag about their corporate culture, seeing it as a key factor in their success. Yet when an independent assessment is done, the results may tell a very different story.
The latest example of this is taking place at the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto Group, which has operations in more than 30 countries. A report commissioned by the company from an outside expert paints a dismal picture of workplace culture in its mines and other facilities around the world.
Elizabeth Broderick, Australia’s former sex discrimination commissioner, conducted an investigation that included a survey completed by more than 10,000 employees as well as more than 100 group listening sessions, 85 confidential individual interviews, and 138 written submissions.
Based on all this, Broderick found that Rio Tinto’s workplace culture is marked by widespread bullying, sexual harassment and racism. She found that the harmful behavior was not limited to the male-dominated manual workforce. Managers, including those at senior levels, often tolerated the behavior or even demonstrated it themselves.
Among the most disturbing findings was that 21 female employees reported experiencing actual or attempted rape or sexual assault during the past five years.
High percentages of the employees had not reported the various forms of mistreatment, believing either that their concerns would not be taken seriously or that they might face repercussions for filing a complaint. Broderick writes: “Employees believe that there is little accountability, particularly for senior leaders and so called ‘high performers’, who are perceived to avoid significant consequences for harmful behaviour.”
In a company press release about the report, CEO Jakob Stausholm stated: “I feel shame and enormous regret to have learned the extent to which bullying, sexual harassment and racism are happening at Rio Tinto.” The implication was that the revelations came as a surprise, thus making management somewhat less culpable.
Yet Stausholm and other senior executives must have been well aware of the problems for some time. The Broderick report was commissioned in response to previous revelations, such as those that emerged from a West Australia parliamentary inquiry last year.
Moreover, Rio Tinto does not exactly have an unblemished track record when it comes to the treatment of employees or the communities in which it operates. Mining industry critic Danny Kennedy once called the company—a frequent target of criticism over its policies relating to the environment, labor relations, and human rights—“a poster child for corporate malfeasance.”
In the area of human rights, Rio Tinto’s sins include having operated a uranium mine in Namibia, in violation of United Nations decrees, during a period in which apartheid-era South Africa still occupied the country. It has also been accused of abuses at mines in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. A lawsuit was filed against Rio Tinto in the United States under the Alien Tort Claims Act, alleging that the company colluded with local authorities in Papua New Guinea to violently suppress protests. It was ultimately dismissed.
In 2020 Rio Tinto’s then-CEO Jean-Sebastian Jacques was pushed out after shareholders demanded he face more serious consequences in the wake of a decision to destroy ancient rock shelters in Australia’s Juukan Gorge that were sacred to two Aboriginal groups.
The question now surrounding Rio Tinto is whether it will see the Broderick report as more than a public relations problem to overcome and make meaningful changes throughout its operations, including the policies adopted by those at the top.