Harmers Workplace Lawyers chairman Michael Harmer said that his firm has been engaged over the last 12 months in a number of sexual harassment matters involving CEOs and senior management of Australian businesses.
“We’ve been dealing with those matters in a way that doesn’t compromise the reputation of the business in questions, and there’s been some challenging work in that area over the last 12 months,” Michael Harmer said.
Recent decisions – such as the landmark Richardson v Oracle Corporation Pty Ltd this year – are expected to open the floodgates for employees who have been sexually harassed at work, but who were constrained by low damages payouts.
In Richardson v Oracle Corporation Pty Ltd, Harmers represented former Oracle IT exec Rebecca Richardson in the Federal Court after she endured harassment at the hands of a co-worker, winning her $130,000 plus costs on appeal.
An initial decision by the court had only awarded Richardson $18,000 plus costs, an amount that was described by the court on appeal as ‘manifestly inadequate’.
“It [the decision] has significantly raised the standard for damages in the whole area of sexual harassment and discrimination,” Michael Harmer said. “It has been an important step forward in that whole are of law in the country.”
The decision was followed by the Federal Court’s Vergara v Ewin decision, in which a victim of workplace sexual assault was awarded half a million dollars.
Harmer said the Richardson matter set the scene for much more significant damages awards in future and encouraged employees to pursue litigation.
“The area has been constrained by the compressed levels of damages, but there is the potential for increased activity and attention from clients,” Harmer said.
It is also expected to add a significant boost to the amounts for which corporate clients will need to settle out of court, to ward off potentially damaging litigation. The bulk of cases involving sexual harassment end up settling out of court.
Harmer said the Richardson v Oracle case also provided companies with a strong foundation for corporate governance and compliance in the harassment area.
A leading workplace lawyer has claimed recent landmark decisions in sexual harassment cases are resulting in employees increasingly looking to make companies pay out in cash for harbouring such damaging behaviour.