International: HR in the spotlight of sexual harassment case

An ongoing dispute regarding an organization’s “sexual harassment culture” has put the HR department in the spotlight.

International: HR in the spotlight of sexual harassment case

The Federal Court is hearing the case of Kate Shea, former director of corporate and government affairs at TRUenergy (now Energy Australia), who is suing the organisation for unlawful termination following sexual harassment allegations.

Shea claims she was sexually harassed by the company’s CFO, Kevin Holmes, in what was a culture of sexual harassment, The Age reported.

She reported sexual harassment by Holmes at a work function in Hong Kong in 2010 to the firm’s HR department. TRUenergy investigated the allegations after Shea informed Richard McIndoe, managing director, in 2011.

Shea and her executive assistant then lost their positions in a restructure, although they were the only two of the organisation’s 1500 employees to be made redundant. Shea claims her termination was because of her complaints.

A former female director claimed Holmes had leered at her, which made her uncomfortable. Holmes also reportedly pulled the pants down of a male staff member.

McIndoe, who was followed at the organisation’s Christmas party by David Purvis, director of HR, apparently asked Shea to retract the allegations, which she refused. She was then given a letter of termination. She said this was illegal, and was then given a letter of resignation to sign.

"Within a matter of weeks ... he tried to sack her. Nothing else happened, she hadn't mucked up at work," Charles Gunst, QC for Shea, said. "Things happened very quickly once he was implicated."

Justin Bourke, SC for Energy Australia, denied there was a sexual harassment culture, and that Shea viewed Holmes as a rival due to his strong finance skills. He stated Shea had gone on leave in 2011 and threatened to speak to the media unless a series of demands – including a $2.5 million payout – were met.

"The minute she hears Kevin Holmes is going to be in the investor relations space, after that meeting she starts describing (the Hong Kong incident) as sexual harassment and sexual assault when she'd previously referred to those events as 'he made a pass at me',” Bourke said.

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