Sexual harassment: more work to be done

Posted by on Oct 17, 2018

Sexual harassment has been in the spotlight more intensively than many of us can remember. A year ago, the New York Times and the New Yorker laid bare multiple accounts of alleged sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein of his staff and colleagues.  No one could have predicted that a flood of 83 people would step forward to accuse Weinstein. In what has become the new norm, each week another high-profile male in a workplace – whether in politics, law, accounting, architecture, science, theatre or television – falls from grace as his bad behaviour is exposed. The #MeToo movement has emboldened individuals to speak up about their complaints (even historical ones).

This topic is again in the headlines due to the release of the results of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2018 sexual harassment survey.  10,000 Australian workers revealed, amongst other things that:

  • 1 in 3 of them reported being sexually harassed at work in the last five years
  • Younger people are at greatest risk of being sexually harassed
  • The vast majority of harassers were men
  • 1 in 5 complained to their employer about harassment, of whom half reported that nothing changed as a result
  • Two thirds of those who witnessed sexual harassment took no action

“Change does not take time, it takes action” states the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins in a call to action which must be heeded.  In the meantime, we might consider whether our workplace policies, laws, current reporting structures and enforcement bodies are fit for purpose to assist with reducing the statistics and reducing the impact of sexual harassment.

There are short term and long term fixes. Here are some ideas to get the discussion going:

  • Make it mandatory for corporate boards to receive statistics on the number of complaints lodged, the complaint handling processes followed, disciplinary action taken, resignations accepted and the settlements reached;
  • Include sexual harassment in the Fair Work Act 2009 with a similar framework as the “stop the bullying” jurisdiction, as well as extending the jurisdiction beyond the employment relationship so that it applies to “the workplace”;
  • Educate organisations about how to conduct investigations that do not need to be complainant driven;
  • Develop an organisational practice whereby investigation reports are shown to the parties at the conclusion of an investigation;
  • Include more sophisticated dispute resolution procedures in policies and training that succeed in empowering workers to resolve their own disputes and complaints (where appropriate), and inform them of the options for resolving disputes and the consequences of those options;
  • Authorise and empower equal opportunity authorities to pursue their own motion enquiries and investigations into organisations;
  • Require organisations to report to WGEA on data regarding complaint numbers and settlement outcomes from sexual harassment cases;
  • Make it mandatory to include a focus on bystander intervention in all harassment and bullying training.

Simultaneously we could contemplate how we can help shift our organisational cultures to ones that respect the dignity of each individual, call out those who abuse their power, and encourage and support those with the fortitude to report their complaint.  Afterall, complainants who report and call out offensive behaviour (whether it is low grade or serious) are not just protecting themselves, but they are helping ensure a safe workplace for everyone.

Sarah Rey is Managing Partner at Justitia. To view Sarah’s profile, click here.