Workplace Sexual Harassment is a Board and Business Owner liability issue

Sexual Harassment in the workplace has been unlawful for so long that you would think that we would have eradicated it by now. However, a recent report Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (2020) reveals that we are far from managing this issue, and nowhere near eradicating it from our workplaces.

In fact, the report found that one in three people experienced sexual harassment at work in the past five years. Importantly, sexual harassment occurs across genders and is not only an issue for women. 

Board members, Business Owners and Senior Managers may have been lulled into a false sense of security that this is not happening in their business merely because they are not receiving complaints. However, research confirms that most people who experience workplace sexual harassment do not report it. It's safe to assume however, that when things become serious, reporting becomes more likely.  If sexual harassment is not reported, it’s not good news, contrary to being good news, it is a lost opportunity to address this invidious workplace issue before it damages individuals and the business. Businesses can’t be confident that their prevention strategies are working, if the only measure used is the number of complaints received.  A study in 2018 by the Human Rights Commission also challenged the common perception of sexual harassment being all about power and therefore prevention strategies should be focussed on those in supervisory or managerial positions who have power over subordinate employees. The 2018 study found in their research that victims of sexual harassment identified the harasser most commonly as someone at the same occupational level as they are, that is, colleagues or co-workers. 

The sting in the tail of this, and all other workplace behaviour issues such as workplace bullying, is that ultimately it is the Board, Business Owners and Senior Management that may be held legally liable where an employee is psychologically injured (or physically injured) as a result of workplace sexual harassment. The Courts and Tribunals are becoming increasingly willing to hold members of this group accountable for the bad behaviour of others at workplaces they are responsible for.  It is more important than ever to make sure that your business has policies and procedures which are genuinely meaningful and that not only allow, but encourage, employees to raise issues early. Organisations must learn to act quickly to address sexual harassment and they must train their management teams but better still, all staff, to identify and manage situations of risk. Leaders need to be trained and armed with the skills and tools to understand behaviours which may constitute sexual harassment and be confident in taking preventative and remedial action when and where it’s needed.

Significant financial penalties have been imposed on Directors, Business Owners or Senior Managers where businesses have been found to have failed to protect employees from sexual harassment. Ignorance of what had been occurring in the business is not only no excuse, but will be relied on by the Courts or Tribunals to the detriment of the Directors, Business Owners or Senior Managers.

Prevention is always better than remediation! If you would like assistance in reviewing your policy and practice framework please contact our HR Consulting team at support@providencehr.com.au or + 61 7 3218 3919.

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published: 29/09/2020

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