#MeToo in the workplace

A recent survey published by the Australian Human Rights Commission has revealed only one in five people who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace made a formal complaint.

Other significant findings of the survey include the following statistics:

  • 19% of respondents who made a formal complaint about sexual harassment were characterised as troublemakers;
  • 49% of respondents thought that reporting sexual harassment was an over-reaction, and therefore failed to report the behaviour; and
  • 45% of respondents who made a complaint said that there were no changes in their organisation.

In a recent interview on ABC Radio Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said sexual harassment in the workplace was increasing.

Based on the findings of the survey, almost half of the complaints made about sexual harassment in the workplace were not met with what complainants considered to be appropriate change.

An example relied upon by Ms Jenkins is Catherine Marriot’s recent complaint regarding former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. The National Party conducted an investigation into Mr Joyce’s behaviour, but the complaint was unable to be substantiated.

This, in Ms Jenkins’ view, was due to the National Party’s lack of a well-defined and externally scrutinised process to deal with complaints of sexual harassment.

There have also been reports that the possibility of defamation proceedings are preventing people from complaining about sexual harassment.

Actor Craig McLachlan is currently involved in a dispute involving a former co-star, over reports of sexual assault. Mr McLachlan is claiming $6.5 million in damages.

The threat of defamation proceedings, coupled with the shortcomings in complaint handling procedures, may go towards explaining why the unreported instances of sexual harassment are so prevalent.

Tips for employers

Our practical tips for employers wanting to address sexual harassment in the workplace are to:

  • implement robust and practical harassment policies and complaints procedures, then ensure that they are followed, promoted and reviewed frequently;
  • provide training in these areas for all employees, and encourage employees to speak up when they see sexual harassment in the workplace. We recommend training be conducted at least annually; and
  • foster attitudinal change in managers and leaders on the issue of sexual harassment.

If you would like advice regarding cultural change, assistance in reviewing or drafting sexual harassment policies, or you would like to conduct training in this area, please contact our Employment, Safety and Migration team.

This article was written by Cinzia Pietrolungo, Lawyer – Employment, Safety and Migration.