How HR can combat sexual harassment

HRD looks at what organisations can do to ensure that workplaces are free of harassment and discrimination

How HR can combat sexual harassment

The Sex Discrimination Act that outlaws harassment on the grounds of gender or sexual harassment came into law in 1984. However, the issue has been increasingly prominent in the public arena, according to Lisa Annese, CEO of Diversity Council Australia (DCA).

“In Australia, this has been most notably through the investigative journalistic work of Tracey Spicer and Kate McClymont who were looking at particular industries, but certainly it’s a warning bell for other industries and other organisations,” Annese told HRD.

Organisations that are members of DCA have very strong, zero-tolerance policies against sexual harassment," Annese added.

“However, an organisation involves interactions between many human beings and that’s not always easy to control.

“So we hope that our members continue to take that stance of zero-tolerance and don’t protect people who are perpetuating particular behaviors.”

Annese said that when inappropriate behavior does occur it’s important that the issue is dealt with swiftly because everyone has the right to work in a manner which is safe and free from harassment.

So what does the DCA recommend that organisations do to ensure their workplace is free of discrimination?

The first thing they can do is have a really robust policy in place and a complaint process so that people know where to go if there is an issue.

“But you also need to communicate that policy and the expectations of behavior with all staff and make it very clear where the line in the sand is,” said Annese.

“Most workplaces have no issues at all with mutual attractions and relationships happening in workplaces so long as it doesn’t have a negative impact on the work.

“But there’s a difference between that and unwelcome, unwarranted attention of a sexual nature, which is the definition of harassment.”

Annese said it’s really important for workplaces to work out what is sexual harassment, set a policy and a strategy in place, communicate that, and tell people what they do if they’re caught in the midst of that.

Then it’s important to have real repercussions for perpetrators even if that perpetrator is a really powerful person in the workplace.

“Because sooner or later, it will come out, and people will be asking why was there this cover of protection around this particular individual?” said Annese.

“And the damage that one person can cause is far greater than the damage of getting rid or addressing that one particular individual in the first instance.

“But it does require leadership, it does require bravery and it does require operating on the premise of believing people when they make complaints that there are issues.

“If you have one complaint, two complaints, five complaints made against the same individual and that’s what we’re seeing, then you need to take a serious look at that particular issue.”

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