Email creates harassment minefield

EMAIL, while a valuable communications tool, has brought with it a potential legal minefield.

As email use increases, sexual harassment via email is becoming more prevalent in the workplace.

To date no cases of email-driven sexual harassment have gone to court in Australia but several have been settled privately.

In the US there have been some substantial law suits regarding electronic harassment.

Phillips Fox partner Ian Curlew-is said he hoped email harassment would be a passing phase.

“Companies must have Internet policies to prohibit the misuse of email services,” Mr Curlewis said.

“With such a policy in place, 50 per cent of the job is done. It’s really no different than any other industrial policy.

“If a complaint is received, it is best to get in fast with conciliation and counselling before things get out of hand.”

Commissioner for Equal Opportunities June Williams said she knew of at least one case where email harassment had led to an employee’s dismissal.

In this case, a female worker was receiving emails she objected to. Despite her objections the emails continued.

In effect, she was ‘punished’ for not being a good sport.

When the company’s head office found out about the matter, one of those responsible for sending the emails was dismissed.

Two managers who were aware of the emails but did nothing to stop them were reprimanded.

However, the incident also cost the company the female employee who no longer felt comfortable working there.

“People seem to think it doesn’t matter if it is on email,” Ms Williams said.

“They wouldn’t dream of sending a sexually harassing memo.”

Sexual harassment is described as directing unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature towards another person in circumstances where it may reasonably be assumed the other person would be offended, humiliated or intimidated by the conduct.

One problem is that what is offensive to one person may be seen as slightly off-colour humour by someone else.

Mr Curlewis said it was always best to err on the side of caution in such matters.

He said emails actually made it easier for people to be caught out in their misconduct.

“It’s hard to deny you sent an email when it’s printed out with your email address on it,” Mr Curlewis said.

Ms Williams said there was no specific WA law covering email harassment but it could easily be classed as sexual harassment.

Companies could even be held responsible for employees harassing somebody by email.

For example, a contractor goes into a workplace and takes a shine to somebody there. He sends the person explicit emails from his workplace that she finds offensive.

In that case, the contractor’s employer could be liable for the misconduct.

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