Workplace policy isn’t enough to tackle sexual harassment

To force a culture shift, HRDs need real action

Workplace policy isn’t enough to tackle sexual harassment

By Katie Williams, Partner for Pinsent Masons, and Justine Cooper, Head of Brook Graham APAC for Vario by Pinsent Masons, integrated legal and inclusion services

It is an uncomfortable truth, but sexual harassment pervades Australian workplaces.

In 2018, Everyone’s business – the fourth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, found that 72% of Australians had experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime, and that in the five years previous, one in three people had experienced sexual harassment at work.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since those damning findings were published.

This year [email protected], the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report of the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces 2020, suggested that a new regulatory model will be required to improve the current legal system for tackling this issue in the workplace.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who led the project, also called on businesses to be more proactive in creating a safe workplace for all and to focus on actions to prevent harassment occurring in the first place.

As Australia looks to the future and beyond the tumultuous year posed by the pandemic, it’s clear that sexual harassment at work is an issue that desperately needs addressing.

Why having a workplace policy alone isn’t enough
The 'traditional' approach taken by employers to sexual harassment is one that is compliance led, which focuses on the regulatory prohibition of harassment and on the mechanism for the victim to make a formal complaint.

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However, [email protected] points to the findings of the National Inquiry that although there were workplace policies ‘prohibiting’ it, sexual harassment still occurred.

Indeed the Ai Group commented to the Commission that: “Simply creating policies and grievance procedures, while important for any business to have, often has limited effect on broader workplace change.”

Having a policy that can be followed if someone reports sexual harassment is useful but does little to encourage a culture change around the behaviour.

The prevalence of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces and the tendency for harassment to go unreported by victims and witnesses reveal the limitations of the compliance-led approach.

Another example that illustrates this clearly is through gender pay gap reporting. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency in November 2020, found a “troubling” reduction in the amount of employers taking action to close the gender pay gaps.

Even though Australian companies reported on the gender pay gap within their own workforce, more than 45% undertook no other initiatives to resolve the gender pay gap issues they found.

While it can feel challenging to adopt a holistic and integrated approach, without it there is likely to be little improvement to the state of play. Senior leaders play a critical role in role modelling behaviours and actions that promote a positive, safe and inclusive culture.

Employees need to be equipped with the tools and confidence to call out behaviour that is unacceptable whether they personally experience harassment or are bystanders to it.  And for those who think it doesn’t happen in their company - even if you don’t receive reports of sexual harassment, it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

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Indeed the fourth National Inquiry also found that most people didn’t report sexual harassment for fear of others viewing it as an overreaction or that it was “easier to keep quiet”.

So, what can HR Directors and their teams do to encourage a culture change in their organisation?

Policies need to be coupled with a suite of actions which a. dissuade perpetrators and clamp down on sexual harassment, b.  encourage victims to report sexual harassment without fear it will negatively impact their career and c. empower everyone to speak out and uphold the standards of respect and dignity at work. For example:

  • Performance coaching with senior managers / the board to make sure they are leading by example and encouraging others to do the same when it comes to acceptable behaviour
  • Regular and consistent training for people managers at all levels on the behaviours that bring the organisation's values to life, and how to foster a positive, safe and inclusive culture
  • Mechanisms to reinforce to all employees the appropriate standards of behaviour expected, as well as what sexual harassment ‘looks’ like, the reporting procedure and what support networks are available for victims
  • Integrated cultural programmes that promote a feedback culture where employees feel psychologically safe to speak up
  • Regular and robust monitoring of qualitative and quantitative data
  • Evaluate the reporting procedure – is there anything you can do better? Do employees feel encouraged to report sexual harassment and is the process fair to the victim and alleged perpetrator?

HR Directors and their teams can make a real difference in helping their employees tackle sexual harassment in the workplace.

With a more proactive approach, rather than a reactive one, companies will be more effective at preventing and dealing with sexual harassment. Creating a safer working environment will help attract, retain and develop talent and companies will be ready to adopt the new legal framework when it is implemented.

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