Landmark inquiry into sexual harassment announced

by HRD21 Jun 2018

A national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces has been announced by the sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins.

The global conversation about sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement has “exposed the true prevalence of the problem” and the harm it causes to individuals, workplaces and society, according to Jenkins.

She added that the National Inquiry will involve an in-depth examination of sexual harassment in the workplace, nation-wide consultation and extensive research.

“Importantly, the Inquiry will provide employees, employers and all members of the public with an opportunity to participate in developing a solution to ensure Australian workplaces are safe and respectful for everyone.”

The news was welcomed by the Diversity Council Australia (DCA) CEO Lisa Annese said sex discrimination, especially in the form of sexual harassment, is widespread.

“Thanks to the #MeToo and #NowAustralia movements, we are finally having a conversation about the high personal and economic cost,” Annese said.

“This official, in-depth examination of businesses practices and cultures is an important part of changing the culture of silence around sexual harassment and discrimination.

“The time for sexual harassment in Australian workplaces to be exposed is well overdue. We need change. And this is a step in the right direction.”

Annese added that the DCA will be consulting with members, where appropriate, to contribute to this important inquiry, as well as supporting member organisations to ensure they have appropriate referral processes in place.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is currently conducting the fourth national survey into workplace sexual harassment, with results expected to be released in August.

Jenkins said early indications show that rates have increased significantly since the last survey was conducted in 2012.

“The Commission will use the findings of the national survey to identify the scale and nature of the problem across a range of industry sectors,” said Jenkins.

“We will examine the current Australian legal framework on sexual harassment, including a review of complaints made to state and territory anti-discrimination agencies.

“In making our recommendations, we will consider the changing work environment and existing good practice being undertaken by employers to prevent and respond to workplace sexual harassment.”

Jenkins added that there is an appetite for change and a “growing realisation” that sexual harassment is not inevitable – “it is unacceptable and it is preventable”.

“We need to continue working to create a society where this kind of conduct is unthinkable, and where sexual harassment at work is not something people simply have to put up with. I believe this national inquiry is a huge step in the right direction.”



  • by Bernie Althofer 21/06/2018 11:31:43 AM

    The terms of reference provide a framework that should allow all interested and concerned parties to identify causal factors that may exist or contribute to both the incident rate and to reporting processes. Unlawful discrimination (including sexual harassment) may be included under the broad umbrella of counterproductive workplace behaviours. In some cases, poor people management practices and skills, inappropriate management style or lack of supervision, overwork, role ambiguity, poor consultation processes, inconsistent work flows reporting procedures, level and nature of training in inadequate, unreasonable performance expectations, and high levels of job dissatisfaction may lead some individuals into instigating, perpetuating or otherwise engaging in counterproductive behaviours.

    In some forums, there have been discussions about the need to conduct risk assessments, particularly in relation to those behaviours that may impact on individuals and the organisation. In some cases, the hazards or risk factors such as negative leadership styles, organisational change, workplace relationships, organisational/ workplace culture, human resources systems, inappropriate systems of work and workforce characteristics make a significant contribution to environments where not only does counterproductive behaviours exist, but an environment where they are tolerated to the point that they are accepted.

    It is interesting to consider the diverse range of issues that impact on individuals in the workplace when it comes to standards of behaviour. Unfortunately it seems that individuals are not provided with an opportunity to have face to face learning interactions where they can 'test' or 'assess' their understanding of what is and what is not acceptable behaviour or workplace conduct. For example, one only has to listen to the words of some songs or to read online postings to be exposed to what some might term 'disrespectful' attitudes towards individuals. It does appear that in some cases, these attitudes are adopted by some individuals who then take those attitudes to the workplace, use them and then wonder what went wrong. Years ago, no-one batted an eye lash (or so we thought) when individuals came to work quoting lines from 'Carry On' movies. The world changed along the way.

    Organisations do have Codes of Conduct and it does appear that in some cases, some individuals may have little to no understanding of what the contents of these mean in a workplace. Engaging people to have interactive discussions so that everyone can share a common understanding about what is meant by 'respect' and 'dignity' may help some individuals. It might also help when presentations conducted in an interactive style (not just self paced learning or online learning), combine the various organisational standards about workplace behaviour and conduct (Code of Conduct, Unlawful discrimination including sexual harassment, and bullying). In my experience there has always been a connection between the areas when individuals (targets, alleged bullies and managers/supervisors) have been seeking advice or guidance.

    Over the years, it has been a concern that individuals in some organisations are 'expected' to be able to respond to incidents. Many lack the power to do so; some believed that they would be further targeted for making a complaint; some believe that the process is too time consuming/costly or traumatic; whilst others have believed that a bad job is better than no job. It does seem that individuals who are well advised, well supported and encouraged may be more likely to formally respond to an incident if they believe that management will listen and hear.

    I have been fortunate to read a number of Inquiry reports and other documents regarding sexual harassment and bullying. It seems that in some cases, implementation of these reports may have 'stalled' for reasons best known to the organisation. The terms of reference for this Inquiry may not cover those situations, but as has been indicated over the past years, even those organisations who don't believe they have a problem with counterproductive behaviours would gain some benefit from reading those reports to identify potential gaps.

    It is a curious thing that whilst organisations may have policies and procedures in place, some individuals are more likely to stand up and speak out (even at the risk of a personal cost) than others who may be present when some incidents are occurring (the smutty jokes, the innuendos, the micro aggressions etc). As a person who provided advice, support and guidance in relation to unlawful discrimination (including sexual harassment), I invariably found that individuals did not speak up for fear of being targeted or excluded. Whistleblower support lines may actually facilitate reporting from those individuals, but then in some organisations, the person is soon identified.

    It may be the case that in some organisations, individuals may be more likely to report or address counterproductive workplace behaviours, whereas in others, there is a 'cloud' or 'lack of clarity' regarding what is and what is not acceptable in the workplace. It does seem that in some cases, individuals take the line 'no-one told me that I couldn't do/say that', whilst others know what it means to treat others with respect and dignity. In some cases, individuals may lack an appropriate level of communication skills and simply say something without thinking about the consequences. In some cases, there is an amount of victim blaming and there appears to be no real reason for this to occur. Some years ago, I contributed to an article "NO means NO", and perhaps I thought that individuals would take notice.

    One would expect that irrespective of the findings of the Inquiry, organisations would start an internal review process to identify any gaps or improvement opportunities in systems or process designed to detect, prevent, report and resolve all forms of counterproductive behaviours.

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