Cultural change key to tackling workplace sexual harassment

by Victoria Bruce07 Apr 2016
Making employees who experience sexual harassment in the workplace responsible for instigating complaints against their perpetrators is a fundamentally flawed system which harms the victims.

Kate Jenkins, Victorian Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commissioner, says Australia’s current complaints-driven system will not resolve systemic issues of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

"The focus on investigation and discipline is not working,” Jenkins says, speaking about where Australia is currently at in terms of managing workplace sexual harassment and discrimination.
“A complaints-driven system will never solve this problem,” she says.
“It's relying on the bravery of an individual to enforce the laws.”

Sexual harassment is rife in Australian workplaces, with data showing as many as one in five women have experienced sexual harassment at work.

Yet many women are afraid to speak up or make a formal complaint, worried that their boss will not listen or that they will face further discrimination in the future, studies have shown.

Jenkins says the current complaints-driven system frequently fails victims of sexual harassment.
“Instead the system harms the victims and often fails to deliver justice to the perpetrator,” she says.

Instead, the key to managing sexual harassment in the workplace is to instigate broad and systemic cultural change, creating an organisational culture that supports complaints.

Lander & Rogers Discrimination Partner Patrizia Mercuri says one of the challenges for organisations is about how to create such a supportive culture.
"At the heart of this is cultural change," she says.
"People need to feel comfortable to raise their concerns, and organisations need to be able to demonstrate that their senior leadership takes these complaints seriously,”
“The workplace culture also needs to encourage bystanders who witness incidents of sexual harassment or discrimination to feel safe in raising this in an appropriate way."

However, for it to be effective, cultural change in behaviour and attitude within organisations must have support and be led from the top, Mercuri says, so it is important that leadership teams understand the issues and are fully committed.

"I think the key is organisations addressing issues of diversity and inclusion, with the focus being on inclusion rather than simply accommodation," Mercuri says.
"And that will ultimately deliver more safe and productive workplaces."

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