Sexual harassment in local government – takeaways from the recent VAGO report

Posted by on Mar 10, 2021

As a consequence of the current public discussion regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, many organisations are reviewing their policies, particularly relating to complaint handling. Those in the local government sector can gain further insight from the recent Victorian Auditor General’s Office (VAGO) report published late last year.

The shortcomings identified by VAGO in the practices, policies and procedures of some Councils to prevent the sexual harassment of staff and Councillors will be familiar to those who work on addressing these issues. The VAGO report is a reminder that, whilst they are failures common to many organisations, that they are readily able to be fixed. A particularly useful part of the report is the attention given to the prevalence of sexual harassment of publicly elected officials and the tailored measures that need to be implemented to protect them. This is necessary given their unique legal status, as they are not employees or contractors.

Background

VAGO audited five councils (both metro and regional). They also conducted a sector-wide survey with just under 10,000 responses across 75 Councils.

Key headlines include:

  • 1 in four Survey Respondents experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months
  • Councils have obvious gaps in their policies, training and communications
  • Councils don’t create cultures in which victims have the confidence to come forward
  • Council documentation of complaints can be improved

Other relevant findings for employers (whether local government or not)

The statistics revealed that those at greater risk of sexual harassment were LGBTIQ+, young (between 18-34) or had a disability. This is consistent with the findings from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2018 report Everyone’s business: Fourth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian Workplaces”.

45% of customer facing employees who have experienced sexual harassment said that a member of the public harassed them. Only one Council had a policy that mentioned harassment by members of the public/customers. One Survey Respondent commented “I have had patrons take photographs of me, make overt sexual comments to me and even touch me, sometimes quite inappropriately … management staff in my sector tend to shrug off any mention of sexual harassment as ‘not really that bad’ or ‘just part of dealing with the public’.” The report suggests Councils take proactive measures to prevent sexual harassment from the public, such as:

  • putting up signs stating that sexual harassment is unlawful and will not be tolerated
  • providing training to staff on dealing with members of the public
  • ensuring customer facing staff know that they can refuse service if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe

Unlike the Victorian public sector, none of the five Councils regularly survey their employees at work about sexual harassment, or categorise complaints in a way that allows them to identify trends in sexual harassment. This is an area that will need to be rectified given the new legal requirements created by the Gender Equality Act 2020.

Whilst all the Councils had policies covering sexual harassment, it was found that they could be more comprehensive, such as including information about bystander interventions and online harassment. They also did not contain all relevant information in the one place.

Employee training was found not to be always effective because it is online; is not tailored to the organisation; does not include bystander intervention guidelines; and in some cases was not tailored for managers on how to respond to complaints. One in four, many of whom were casuals, said they had never received training on “appropriate behaviour”..

None of the five Councils provided evidence of communications from senior staff, CEOs or mayors about sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviours. Only 31% of survey respondents said that their Council communicates with them annually about how they are addressing sexual harassment. Some gave examples of how leaders did not model respectful behaviour or call it out. Experiences shared by Survey Respondents included “I was involved with a conversation which occurred at a manager catch up where the CEO was present. [The conversation was] totally inappropriate and uncomfortable with snickering etc. Not one [executive team] member or CEO said anything.” and “I believe that within my council, there is a councillor who is known to be inappropriate. It seems that this is known about and discussed within leadership. However, as this councillor is still in his role, it leads me to assume that leadership do not take this issue seriously.

Of the survey respondents who experienced sexual harassment, only 2% made a formal complaint. The most common reasons why respondents did not make a complaint was because they thought the behaviour was not serious enough; it would not make a difference if they did report it; or they believed there would be negative consequences for them.

Interestingly, VAGO recommends that Councils encourage anonymous complaints in order to provide useful insights on cultural and behavioural issues, “even if councils often cannot complete a complaints process with them”.

Gaps in complaint handling included:

  • Not informing complainants of the outcomes of their complaints
  • Investigators misunderstanding the legal definition of sexual harassment
  • Incomplete documentation
  • Failing to support reluctant complainants to continue with their complaint when they expressed reservations. 

Councillors

Councillors who responded to the survey shared sexual harassment experiences at the same rate as other staff, but received less support from their Councils. Compared to employees, they were more likely to be harassed by a Councillor or member of the public; less likely to receive training; and less likely to know how to access their Council’s EAP.

44% of female councillors said they had been sexually harassed in the past 12 months, compared to 19% male councillors.

Councillors indicated they did not have access to the same informal complaint resolution mechanisms as employees and that Councillor Codes of Conduct at that time were not suited to this. Since the survey, there has been legislative change which should address this shortcoming. Councillors also indicated they were not advised they could make complaints to external bodies such as the VEOHRC and the police.

The following quotes from Survey Respondents provide insights into the challenges faced by female elected officials:

One councillor greeted women in council by kissing them on the lips … Why would he think this is acceptable? Female council staff were obviously repulsed but could not say anything.”

“A certain councillor used to come in and would make very loud comments about my appearance, and call me things like ‘hot stuff’ … it was hard when I was in the infancy of my career and it is difficult to be respected outright as you are at the bottom of the food chain.”

“In a previous Council I was in a position where a councillor crossed the line, CEO was advised of the incident but I don’t believe it was raised [with council] as CEO’s contract was up for renewal.”

“Often, with older male councillors, casual innuendo and uninvited touching is tolerated and seems harder to enforce from a conduct point of view within the organisation.”

“I have seen the rape threats and threatened violence against female councillors and I believe that this prevents women going into or staying in these roles.”

The report notes that all five Councils which participated in the audit agreed to use the findings to identify and act on the risk factors; to collect information on the prevalence of sexual harassment every two years; and address the risk of sexual harassment presented by the conduct of members of the public.

These Councils should hopefully know that they are not alone with these types of risks and the failings that have been identified. As sexual harassment remains prevalent, and is in breach of health and safety and anti-discrimination laws, it requires appropriate leadership, an ongoing spotlight and vigilance to eliminate it.  

Victorian Auditor-General’s Office – Sexual Harassment in Local Government – 9 December 2020