A guide to Australian workplace changes in 2020

by | Feb 5, 2020

They say hindsight is 20/20 vision, but let’s see if we can forecast 2020. Experts predict what will impact our workplaces this year.

Trying to predict the future is often a futile exercise, but if you want to create a thriving and productive workforce, that’s often exactly what you have to do.

The good news? It’s set to be an interesting and challenging year ahead for professionals in the HR world, says Will Snow, partner at Finlaysons Lawyers and a convenor of AHRI’s SA Employee Relations/Industrial Relations Network.

“Sometimes you go, ‘Well, there’s not much happening – I’ve got to make something up,’” laughs Snow. “But this year there are genuine topics of concern.”

Industrial relations and workplace law

At its core, 2020 will be about HR professionals getting back to basics. Kathryn Dent, director at People + Culture Strategies and a convenor of AHRI’s NSW Employee Relations/Industrial Relations Network, says HR professionals should expect underpayments and wage theft to remain under the microscope. “I don’t expect that to abate in 2020, with the increasing number of high-profile employers demonstrating that even their sophisticated systems have been unable to prevent underpayments from occurring.”

Susan Sadler CPHR, director at Red Wagon Workplace Solutions and a committee member alongside Snow, suggests organisations should take the initiative and engage the services of a financial auditor who is separate from their accountant or payroll team.

“Do an independent, thorough payroll assessment using someone different to your normal auditor,” says Sadler.

Sadler adds that if your auditor picks up any discrepancies, you’ll need to conduct an even more thorough analysis that examines the last seven years of your payroll (the point where underpayment claims are capped).

Mondelez v AMWU

Another industrial relations issue that will attract employers’ attention will be how the Mondelez v AMWU Federal Court decision plays out in the courts, across businesses and, possibly, in parliament.

Most HR professionals would be aware that Australia’s National Employment Standards (NES) mandate a minimum of 10 days paid personal leave per year – but this case challenged that.

Mondelez, which owns Cadbury, took the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) and two of its members to Federal Court, arguing that staff who worked three 12-hour shifts a week should only receive 7.6 hours worth of personal/carer’s leave for each 12 hour day under the NES. 

However, the AMWU successfully argued that its two workers should receive 10 days of 12 hours of personal/carer’s leave (total 120 hours) under the NES. The federal government has since announced that it will join Mondelez’s appeal to the High Court.

“It may seem to be a matter that is limited to a fact regarding a particular business and their enterprise agreements, but the way in which the Federal Court has decided it means that it has ramifications across every single Australian employer,” says Snow.

Union movements

At the time of writing this article, the federal government was attempting to pass the Ensuring Integrity Bill after a first attempt failed at the last moment.

The bill imposes tougher sanctions for registered organisations for breaches of the law and governance issues arising from recommendations out of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.

“We are going to go through a period of change over the next 12 months that some would argue will limit the rights and the roles of unions, and therefore employees,” says Sadler.

“But there will be a counterargument from business about how it will benefit them.”


New annualised salary award provisions will apply from 1 March that will require employers who are paying annualised salaries to satisfy themselves on a regular basis that they are compliant with the underlying award.

“That’s going to mean increased diligence on recording actual hours worked. I think that’s going to be a challenge for both systems and payroll processes to ensure that,” says Snow.


Dent says another issue HR professionals should stay on top of in 2020 is bullying claims, as she saw several intense workplace investigations unfold last year.

“The challenge for HR staff is how to respond appropriately to those and maintain a functional, if not harmonious, workplace relationship,” says Dent.

Snow agrees, saying it’s an issue that employers often overlook. “These policies don’t need to be very long – one or two pages will suffice. But every business, regardless of its size, needs to define what unacceptable behaviours are and a clear path for employees on how they can raise issues of concern.”

Religious freedom laws

Another talking point for organisations will be legislation around religious discrimination after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced late last year that his government would push back its plans to outlaw religious discrimination until some time in 2020.

The delay came after religious groups slammed the proposed laws as not doing enough to protect religious freedoms, while human rights and LGBTI+ groups, employer bodies and state anti-discrimination commissions also opposed the bill. The Australian Council of Trade Unions wants the laws withdrawn and the Australian Industry Group wants them watered down considerably.

Regardless of how it plays out, Sadler warns that businesses and HR professionals will need to tread carefully in this space – as highlighted by the Israel Folau vs Rugby Australia flare-up that kicked off in April 2019 and was finally settled, confidentially, late in 2019.

“Make sure when you go through investigations or termination processes that you are squeaky clean and objective in the decision-making process,” advises Sadler.

“Follow the guidelines for procedural fairness and natural justice, and treat everyone equally regardless of their sexual orientation or their religious beliefs. And act in the best interests of the business and balance that with treating the employee with dignity and fairness.”

“Up until now, VR has perhaps been a hammer looking for a nail. But we’re starting to see some rich and compelling applications of VR in the market.” – Andrew Hill, partner and leader of HR Transformation advisory team, Deloitte Australia


A key technological opportunity HR staff should have on their radar in 2020 is virtual reality (VR), says Andrew Hill, partner at Deloitte and leader of its HR transformation advisory team in Australia.

“Up until now, VR has perhaps been a hammer looking for a nail. But we’re starting to see some rich and compelling applications of VR in the market,” says Hill.

Practical applications of VR include being used in employee inductions to emphasise key health and safety concerns to incoming employees. It can also make learning more engaging and effective for new workers.

“One we just demonstrated basically broke down a power plant and the VR user was able to select and visit different parts of the plant.” 

Justine Cooper FCPHR, head of Brook Graham from Pinsent Masons, Asia-Pacific, adds that VR can also be used to improve inclusion and understanding.

“To stick on a VR kit and actually experience life in somebody else’s shoes, quite literally – those can be hugely powerful,” says Cooper.

Employee experience and continuous development

Hill says another technological trend we’ll see more of this year is the shift in HR technology traditionally being designed for HR functions, to now being designed for the end-user. That is: workers and people leaders.

Cooper adds that these emerging employee-orientated technologies can provide continuous development in workplaces.

“One example is Westpac’s implementation of a tool called Learning Bank. It uses predictive analytics like Amazon and collaborative communities like Facebook,” says Cooper.

“The platform enables people to load learning content from technical training through to sharing media like the latest TED talks, podcasts, book reviews, etc.”

However, with new HR technologies coming onto the market often, Hill says one key challenge facing HR is making smart choices regarding which ones to adopt.

“With enterprise HR systems now expected to be able to handle learning, talent acquisition, performance management, wellness, analytics, as well as being highly engaging, it can be challenging to keep up with that proliferation.”

Artificial intelligence

Expect conversations around artificial intelligence (AI) and bias to continue in 2020.

“Humans carry an inherent level of bias, be it conscious or unconscious,” says Hill. “And given that it’s humans designing AI into the different parts of HR services, it naturally extends that that bias would be projected into that capability.”

For example, in late 2018 Amazon scrapped its secret AI recruiting tool because it showed bias against women for software developer jobs and other technical posts.

Essentially, the algorithms were trained to assess applicants by observing patterns in resumes submitted to the company over a 10-year period. However, as the majority of resumes came from men, the machine taught itself to favour male candidates, and developers were unable to correct the issue.

Cooper says this highlights the need to have diversity in the teams of people that work on those AI tools.

“And then you need to have diversity in the teams that are testing those AI tools, as well as in the implementation and continuous review,” says Cooper.

Artificial Intelligence

Diversity and inclusion

Increased globalisation will impact diversity and inclusion, says Cooper, and HR should keep an eye on this throughout 2020.

While globalisation obviously isn’t a new trend, businesses of all sizes are nonetheless becoming more complex, multi-jurisdictional, and developing more extensive supply chains.

“And when you think about that from a diversity and inclusion lens, you need to think about how you replicate your standards of governance, ethics and social responsibility across your whole business and with your stakeholders and communities,” says Cooper.

As such, businesses and HR professionals will need to operate with a ‘glocal’ mindset, she says. “In our firm we talk about adopting an embassy approach to diversity and inclusion, being clear around our global principles while also having an understanding of what diversity means within a local context.

“Because the conversations on diversity here in Sydney – the demographics, the employment legislation, the societal expectations – are different from the conversations I have about diversity with our colleagues and clients in Singapore, for example.”

Ageing population

HR also needs to be aware of the shift towards an ageing population and the related talent shortage challenges.

“Ageism exists in our culture. But given the experiences and wisdom of those who have been in the workforce for 30 years-plus, there are tremendous opportunities there for us to leverage and learn from across the workforce,” says Cooper.

“The more we think about diversity as an asset, rather than an HR challenge that needs to be fixed, then that will shift the way in which we address shortfalls in talent.”

The evolving workplace

It’s important for HR professionals to remember that the construct of ‘work’ will continue to evolve in 2020, says Cooper, with an increase in activity-based working, agile working and remote working.

“As leaders, we need to be building trusted and connected cultures and foster belonging, respect and positive cultures where everyone feels valued.

“And that is very different if you’ve got people working in an agile way and across different time zones and with flexibility. It requires different ways for leaders to inspire and foster that sense of team.”

In the coming year expect businesses to face increased competition and pressure around managing margins and cost control, which risks putting D&I on the back-burner.

In a story on HR’s role in a recession in last month’s magazine, HRM wrote about the risk of organisations ditching diversity and inclusion initiatives as they face financial headwinds. In an interview with Tina Shah Paikeday, leader of Russell Reynolds Associates Global D&I Consulting Services, she made the point that the people who care about diversity and inclusion will remember that you ditched it. Her implication being that you could cause your organisation reputational harm. 

“In HR, we need to be continuously advocating that diversity and inclusion is the right thing to do for our people and their wellbeing,” says Cooper. “As well as being a strategic, commercial opportunity for businesses to harness greater creativity, decision-making and innovation.” 

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 edition of HRM magazine.