18 January 2016

Changing community expectations surrounding workplace sexual harassment

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Sexual harassment in Australia’s workplaces continues to be a major headache for both staff and HR managers alike. A 2014 report from the United Nations stated that Australia has one of the highest rates of reported sexual assault in the world at a rate of 92 people out of 1,000 of the population estimated to have reported sexual assault.

Recent allegations against NSW Labour general secretary Jamie Clements has again brought workplace sexual harassment into the headlines.

The application for an AVO by former NSW Labor staffer Stephanie Jones alleged Mr Clement pushed her against a wall and attempting to kiss her. The AVO was dismissed after Mr Clements signed an out-of-court arrangement not to approach Ms Jones for a period of 12 months.

In a report from 2008, the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 43% of people who had made a complaint alleging sexual harassment didn’t feel as though their complaint was taken seriously by management, while 21% had a lack of faith in the complaint process.

Ignoring or failing to take sexual harassment allegations seriously can be a costly mistake for an organisation.

An article from the ABC in December 2015 outlined the case of a female road construction worker who was subjected to: assaults, sexual harassment, bullying and rape threats.

During the trial, her lawyer, Liberty Sanger said her client “had tried very hard to bring the behaviour to her employer’s attention, but her complaints were laughed off.”

Victorian Supreme Court Justice, Terry Forrest awarded the complainant – Ms Karen Matthews - a $1.3 million payout.

Justice Forrest found in his judgement that Ms Matthews was a good worker and now suffered a chronic psychiatric illness and agreed with medical advice that Ms Matthews was unlikely to ever work again.

While the full payout of $1.36 million isn’t the highest payout in Australia it was a very high payout for a sexual harassment case, and sends a strong message to all employers they must have a zero tolerance approach to bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace.

The implication to businesses from this and other high profile cases is it is a costly mistake not to take serious and appropriate action when a sexual harassment complaint is lodged. In recent times, there have been a number of high profile cases that have received large payouts.

With 222 sexual harassment complaints lodged in the last financial year court decisions are reflecting the changing community standards with victims now more likely to receive six-figure payouts.

Making certain your policies and procedures surrounding workplace sexual harassment complaints are strong and robust helps to provide organisations with the steps they need to protect not only their businesses and reputations, but more importantly their staff.

Akolade is again running its intensive 1-day 10th Fundamentals of Workplace Law event across Australian in April 2016. For the latest court findings, legislative changes and to ensure your policies reflect the best possible standards please click here.


Mike Cullen has recently returned to Akolade after a period as the conference producer for one of Australia's leading economic think tanks. Mike began working in the conference industry in 2007 after looking for a career change from the high pressured world of inbound customer service. Mike has worked for some of the most well-known conference and media companies in the B2B space and in his spare time is working on his first novel in a planned Epic Fantasy trilogy.

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