Sexual harassment: 'The best cure is prevention'

by Contributor05 Sep 2018

Tracey Spicer, who has taken an active role in the Australian #metoo movement, has recently warned that Australia has only seen the “tip of the iceberg”. She is predicting that several more sexual harassment scandals will be brought to the public’s attention in the next few months. It was Ms Spicer’s advocacy that helped propel the Federal Government to launch an inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

If Ms Spicer’s predictions are correct, Australians can expect more scandals to rock the business world in the months ahead. As such, what can workplaces expect? How will they be affected? And how can businesses protect themselves from claims of workplace inequality?

Handling complaints
It is possible that workplaces will find themselves facing a surge of complaints which will inevitably affect the work environment and productivity. To manage complaints correctly, it is important that all businesses keep accurate human resources records of any and all complaints of workplace inequity. In addition, the records should show that immediate and adequate action was taken. Suggested actions include;

  1. Speak to all parties involved; including the accuser, the accused and anyone who might have additional knowledge of the situation claimed
  2. Keep accurate records of all meetings and discussions
  3. Quell any evidence of ridicule or hostility within the work environment
  4. Be cognisant of the damage the allegations could have on either the victim or the perpetrator
  5. Keep all investigations and findings confidential to only those directly involved

What to avoid
As the Australian community rises up against unequal workplace occurrences, businesses should be prepared to ensure that none of the following is occurring in their workplace:

  1. Women who come forward experience retribution
  2. Promotions are lost or delayed
  3. Job loss as a result of the filing of a complaint
  4. Emotional issues arising from the abuse; including post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety, depression and fear are addressed by human resources.

The best cure is prevention
The #metoo movement has created a ripple of outrage which is now gaining momentum and will continue to be a major national issue of interest. With the level of outrage that is present, businesses need to be prepared to fight any incoming claims of inequity. To do this they must be able to show that their female employees are being treated fairly and equally, sans any form of sexual harassment. It is important for businesses to have the following avenues open to women who feel they are being sexually harassed or treated unfairly in the workplace.

  1. Set procedures that protect a woman’s right to come forward with information of being harmed, assaulted or harassed in the workplace
  2. Protect the women who come forward from experiencing any repercussions for raising these sensitive issues
  3. Attend to the need to alter the work environment, sans any loss of status or promotional opportunities for the women who come forward
  4. Do not use termination as a way to eradicate the issue
  5. Assure the victim that in the event they choose to look for a new positon elsewhere, references will be given only on their actual work performance
  6. Offer resources within the community to assist women in finding additional help with the emotional issues that can arise from such a situation

With a combination of responsible business practices, and with proper attention, advocacy, and careful thought about the issues, businesses will be able to reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. Such action will open up the workplace to greater success through respect, safety, and the full and equal integration of all employees over the course of their careers.

About Rolf Howard
Rolf is Managing Partner of Owen Hodge Lawyers. He has been in the legal practice since 1986 and a partner of Owen Hodge Lawyers since 1992. Rolf focuses on assisting clients to proactively manage legal responsibilities and opportunities to achieve competitive advantage. Rolf concentrates on business planning and formation, directors’ duties, corporate governance, fund raising and business succession. His major interest is to assist business owners and their financial advisers plan and implement strategies to build and exit from successful businesses.


  • by Bernie Althofer 6/09/2018 11:31:02 AM

    Over the years, there have been numerous discussions regarding the need to prevent, detect, report and resolve all forms of counterproductive workplace behaviours including sexual harassment and bullying. It seems that whilst there has been a focus on the need for prevention, some organisations may have focused on the resolution process after a complaint has been made and an investigation conducted. All workers at all levels within an organisation need to feel safe if they are either being subjected to or witness counterproductive workplace behaviours. The behaviours have a negative impact on wide range of people from those in the workplace to family, friends and associates outside the workplace, and can include but is not limited to investigators and the media. Whilst the best cure may be prevention, allocated financial resources to ensure that preventive strategies are developed and implemented may be difficult when a business case is not presented. Some decision makers may perceive that the lack of data about reported incidents equates with a lack actual incidents, and given that in some situation, a business case contains complaint data, the absence thereof makes it more difficult to gain approval. It also seems that even when a complaint is made, investigated and 'finalised' there is a belief that by requiring all workers to complete mandatory online or self based training, there will be no further occurrences. Workers can complete both forms of training without really understanding the personal and organisational implications of the policy intent. In some cases, there may be confusion about what is meant by sexual harassment e.g. No Means No. Generations may have different beliefs and understandings about what is and what is not acceptable in a workplace and some of these beliefs may be influenced by what individuals view in popular programs, what they hear in song etc. They then find themselves trying to take some of what they have seen or heard into the workplace and wonder why their conduct or behaviour is not acceptable. However at the same time, the majoriy of workers no doubt know the difference and are able to treat co-workers with respect and dignity. Well defined boundaries about what is acceptable conduct combined with regular, open and transparent sessions where individuals can discuss with penalty, any concerns they may have about their understanding of acceptable behaviours. There may well be some organisations who over the years have conducted Reviews or Assessments and yet the findings are yet to be implemented. Whilst there may have been processes in place to limit access to such reports, there may be those who not only know about the reports, but also what the reports contain. It seems that in some cases, there may be a mistaken belief that an annual 'sheep dip' approach to training manage the risks associated with counterproductive behaviours. However, regular audits and assessments to test whether or not individuals at all levels are actually complying with the policy (that should have been covered in training) may identify gaps in knowledge transference e.g. "I thought it meant this" or "I just completed the test at the end". As a number of organisations now have support networks in place (internal or external), there may still be a number of workers who will not report counterproductive behaviours despite the organisation saying they can come forward. As there is increased publicity regarding penalties imposted on organisations and individuals, those workers may eventually come forward. It might be that currently organisations are only seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reporting. For some workers, it still not physically, psychologically and financially safe to report. As I have indicated elsewhere, proactive organisations will be reviewing existing reports or Reviews to identify any gaps or opportunities for improvement that may exist in their own organisation. It is becoming a case more of when it happens, not if it happens so organisations need to prepare. The damage caused to individuals and organisations can be considerable if it could be shown that an organisation may have been aware of the risks yet fail to implement appropriate controls. Everytime a complaint or incident is publicised, organisations need to review their controls, including their proactive and preventive strategies, and look for the undercurrents that do exist. It is only a matter of time before someone finds them.

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