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Action needed on harassment

MANY businesses are not doing enough to protect themselves, and their employees, from the personal and monetary costs associated with workplace sexual harassment.

Evidence suggests the financial cost of claims is rising not because of an increasing incidence of sexual harassment, but because of the size of individual fines imposed by the WA Equal Opportunity Commission.

In fact, sexual harassment enquiries at the WA Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) dropped from 383 in 2002 to 255 this financial year.

A survey earlier this year by the EOC revealed awareness of sexual harassment as an unlawful behaviour under the WA Equal Opportunity Act was 95 per cent.

This awareness does not necessarily translate to action, however.

According to Minter Ellison IR and HR division partner Bruno Di Girolami, many WA businesses have adequate policy designed to prevent sexual harassment and deal with subsequent legal challenges.

But these policies are often neglected and it can be too late to “dust them off” after someone in the organisation cries foul.

Despite this, Mr Di Girolami said a large number of businesses still didn’t have any Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) policy.

Equally concerning was the number of businesses that have policy but do not implement it correctly.

“You can have the best policy in the world, but if nobody [in the organisation] knows it, it will not hold in court,” Mr Di Girolami said.

According to a report into sexual harassment at work released two weeks ago by the Federal Sex Discrimination Commission, the behaviour costs Australian employers a significant amount each year.

The paper, A Bad Business: Sexual harassment in Employment, reviewed 152 complaints of sexual harassment at work finalised by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).

The average amount of compensation ordered by HREOC last year was $6,250, but claims ranged from $5,000 up to $200,000.

According to the report, not only were 95 per cent of the complaints made by women – posing a significant human rights issue, but only one in three employers in the review had a sexual harassment policy that appeared to be fully implemented.

Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward urged all businesses – after almost 20 years of Australian legislation outlawing sexual harassment – to become more aware of the issue.

Ms Goward said the sexual harassment costs were not just confined to compensation.

Employee absenteeism, employee turnover and the associated recruitment and training costs, as well as disruption and loss of staff morale in the work-place often cost a business more than a one-off claim.

“Women are reporting this harassment in their workplace, and employers must be prepared to respond,” Ms Goward said.

“This means not only having a sexual harassment policy in place, but also ensuring its effective operation.

“This will help to limit an employer’s liability for any harassment that does occur, and also makes smart business sense by creating a professional and productive workplace in which people are treated respectfully.”

Specialising in equal employment opportunity (EEO) for the past 13 years, Mr Di Girolami said it was critical businesses took the necessary steps to have their equal employment policies fully implemented in the workplace.

“A lot of companies have very good policies written up but just stashed away,” he told WA Business News.

Most of a business’s problems arise when a harasser says he or she was not fully aware of a company’s sexual harassment policy.

Mr Di Girolami said businesses often ended up paying for an employee’s harassment under the ‘vicarious liability’ section of the WA Equal Opportunity Act.

Being vicariously liable for someone is a bit like being the parent of a child who has behaved badly. That is, even though it was the child who was in the wrong, the parent must take ultimate responsibility for the child’s actions as they are the legal guardian.

Up-to-date training and employee awareness of sexual harassment and other discriminatory behaviours was critical to avoid vicarious liability, Mr Di Girolami said.

This can be ensured through internal complaints processes, ensuring that managers and supervisors are prepared and able to handle complaints of sexual harassment, and training staff about the company policy.

 

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