2017: The Year Sexual Harassment Claimed the Public Spotlight

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 03, 2018

It seems that as 2017 gathered steam, more and more brave survivors of sexual harassment in the workplace gained the courage to name their alleged harassers. 

From Hollywood bigwigs and actors to Australian TV personalities; it seems that a vast array of perpetrators and inappropriate actions within the entertainment industry have finally come to light. 

There is no doubt that any move to identify and eliminate sexual harassment at work is a good thing. However, what is important as we close the 'year of the Weinstein' is that we don't forget some of the less obvious - but no less damaging - manifestations of sexual harassment in the workplace. 

The reach of Australian legislation protecting workers is impressive. Yet many workers and employers still fail to recognise that sexual harassment is occurring on a regular basis. For example - a workplace might tacitly support that 'touchy feely' manager, or the 'jokey' worker who pushes the line on blue humour. What is certainly not acceptable under law, can in some contexts become normalised. 

Developing broad-ranging understanding of what is and what is not sexual harassment, can be quite challenging. How to combat this lack of knowledge is the next frontier for employers and workers alike.

Key definitions of sexual harassment

The Federal Sex Discrimination Act contains the following definition of sexual harassment: 

28A - Meaning of Sexual Harassment

(1) For the purposes of this Division, a person sexually harasses another person (the person harassed) if:

(a) the person makes an unwelcome sexual advance, or an unwelcome request for sexual favours, to the person harassed; or

(b) engaged in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the person harassed;

in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated. 

Importantly, 28A(1)(b) provides for the broader "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature." 

Both workers and employers alike face some knowledge gaps in terms of the reach of the definition. And what could mistakenly be thought of as 'just mucking around' or 'a harmless Aussie joke' might in fact fall squarely within the meaning of sexual harassment. 

As seen in the legislation, it is not a matter of whether the person harassing might have anticipated an adverse reaction from the person harassed. The relevant threshold in gauging the reaction from the viewpoint of the ubiquitous 'reasonable person'. 

global reach - the #metoo campaign

We watched the tsunami of the '#metoo' campaign encouraging women across the globe to share their experiences of sexual harassment, by using the simple hashtag across social media. The campaign has shed valuable light upon the prevalence of sexual harassment in society. 

Both women and men have been subjected to unacceptable words and acts - often without support or a sufficient avenue for redress. We are beginning to understand that sexual harassment is blind to gender, with men becoming susceptible to this behaviour - as the matter of Kordas shows. 

Unique questions arise for employers when we consider the various social media platforms being used by women to spread this message. If a person hashtags #metoo from a workplace, the employer might well have an obligation to follow up on this informal notification. Certainly, if there are subtle or overt signs of a connection between the claim and work, an investigation of possible workplace sexual harassment might well be advisable.

THE extreme and the ugly...

As noted, 2017 could certainly be considered the year in which the issue of sexual harassment hit the headlines in a major way. In the United States, the verbal and physical exploits of Hollywood's Harvey Weinstein became part of a horrifying litany of sexual harassment occurrences in the workplace. Similarly in Australia, media personality Don Burke has faced extensive allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace, stemming across many years in his work as the nation's 'gardening guru'. 

Yet it is arguable that such extreme cases do little to assist the public's understanding of the more fine-grained aspects of workplace sexual harassment. Across Australian workplaces, only a small percentage of workers who have been sexually harassed will report the behaviour. In general, this is due to the fact that sexual harassment is only understood to be the kinds of egregious, physical acts that have made media headlines in 2017. 

The subtler acts of sexually-based joking, leering, cornering, propositioning and unwanted affection are less likely understood by workers (and even some employers) as being what they are - sexual harassment. How to keep such harassment at the forefront of employer thinking into 2018 and beyond, is the challenge. 

risk of ignorance 

When whispers and talk arise about an incident of sexual harassment, employers need to pay close attention. If an employee approaches management with a concern, it is important to understand that verbal notification of sexual harassment is generally all that is needed. 

Those subject to harassment are not required to make a formal, written complaint. The risks of not acting on an informal, verbal notification of unacceptable behaviour can be high, as demonstrated by the cases of Trolan and Matthews. Employers in this situation have faced mounting costs associated with statutory and common law claims - not to mention the operational costs of allowing sexual harassment to occur in the workplace initially.

workplace vulnerabilities 

Workplaces where rank and hierarchy exist - such as emergency services and the armed forces - can be particularly susceptible to occurrences of sexual harassment. In the recent NSW case of Torres v Commissioner of Police [2017] NSWIRC 1001, the Commission noted that part of the problem with the senior constable's lewd behaviour stemmed from these displays being forced upon more junior colleagues. His dismissal was found to be warranted in light of the gravity of his sexual harassment at work. Those in lower positions can feel that they have no option but to accept the behaviour. 

Taking advantage of junior and/or more vulnerable workers can also be evident in low-paid and transient industries. Recent unsavoury cases of sexual harassment have been found to have occurred in farming and horticultural industries where transient workers are open to abuses by employers and permanent staff. Similarly, in hospitality workplaces, junior staff are particularly prone to sexual harassment. Age, time in the role, and financial necessity are just some of the vulnerabilities that can lead to harassment.

workplace sexual harassment policies crucial

The importance of having meaningful and accessible workplace sexual harassment policies cannot be overstated. It is not enough to simply email staff about a generic policy on sexual harassment in the workplace. And it is also not satisfactory to do the bulk of education activities at the point of recruitment. 

Like any workplace risk, sexual harassment needs to be monitored across time and in the context of each individual work site. Policies should remain living documents that provide robust responses to any unacceptable workplace behaviours. 

The costs of failing in this area include not only money and time, but also that most valuable of corporate commodities - reputation.

strong but subtle RESPONSES

2017 brought sexual harassment in the workplace front-and-centre for the global viewing public. Tales of power gone astray and a culture of staying quiet have all led to the situations that have dominated the headlines in recent months. There is no denying the importance of bringing such stories to light. However appropriate workplace responses will not simply engage with the worst types of sexual harassment, such as we have heard about recently in the media. Active employers will necessarily source the best and most responsive policies, addressing all issues that might allow sexual harassment to fester and grow in the workplace. 

Hopefully, 2018 will be the year in which all employers develop responsive workplace systems designed to detect the earliest threat of sexual harassment across every site. If you need assistance, WISE Workplace can help with sexual harassment policies, training and investigations.

Crossing the Line: Flirting vs Sexual Harassment

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The recent media attention on sexual misconduct in Hollywood is a turning point; what may have been considered 'innocent flirting' in the 70s and 80s is increasingly being called what it is - unwanted harassment. The public condemnation of film mogul Harvey Weinstein's conduct has emboldened people to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against other celebrities, in what some have described as the 'Weinstein ripple effect'. 

There has been a significant shift in recent years in the way the criminal justice system conceptualises consent, and this has likewise affected the perception of harassment. 

Although the Hollywood allegations are of a serious nature, with some amounting to sexual assault and rape, they have also cast the spotlight on work relationships in journalism, entertainment, politics and the everyday workplace -'the office'. The question arises: what constitutes sexual harassment in 2017?

legal definition of sexual harassment in australia

Although many assume that sexual harassment must occur between a man and a woman, in Australia this is not the case - it can take place between persons identifying with any sex or any gender. 

According to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), 'sexual harassment' includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or other conduct of a sexual nature - the key element being that the behaviour is not welcomed by the recipient. 

The conduct needs to be assessed from the viewpoint of a reasonable person and whether the reasonable person would consider, in all the circumstances, that the recipient might be 'offended, humiliated or intimidated' by it. 

Even more seriously, sexual assault includes a person being forced, coerced or tricked into a sexual act against their will and without their consent. If the victim is a child, it's sexual assault regardless of any apparent consent. 

In cases where sexual assault is alleged in the workplace, the complainant needs to be advised that they can make a complaint to the Police. 

Should the conduct involve a minor, it may constitute 'reportable conduct' - which is required to be reported in accordance with the relevant state legislation, as well as to the Police. 

SO, is it flirting - or harassment?

Many interpersonal interactions between employees are, particularly in their early stages, subtler and more ambiguous than clear examples of harassment. Smiles, winks, compliments, sexual innuendo and humour, suggestive glances, or even a touch on the arm or shoulder could be seen by some as innocent flirting - but perceived by others as harassment. Recipients of such behaviour may wonder whether these comments and behaviours are friendly or sinister in nature, intentional or accidental, a one-time event or likely to persist. 

When determining whether behaviour might be sexual harassment, it can be made clearer by answering some important questions, such as: 

  • Does the recipient seem uncomfortable or fail to respond to comments or discussions?
  • Is one person involved in the conversation in a position of authority?
  • Could the person making the overtures impose real professional consequences on the recipient if they were turned down?

the role of touching in sexual harassment

It is clear that engaging in unwanted touching is an even more serious offence than making offensive or inappropriate comments or suggestions. For this reason, many employers consider it prudent to ban physical contact in the workplace beyond simple handshakes. Of course, this can also have an impact on how friendly the workplace is perceived as being, so depending on your workplace, it may be more appropriate to closely monitor physical interaction rather than ban it outright. Generally speaking, however, those in positions of power such as managers or supervisors should avoid physical contact where possible. 

the role of power and status

Interestingly, studies have revealed that some men in positions of power find their roles inextricably linked to sex - meaning that they struggle to differentiate between women (or other men, if that lines up with their sexual orientation) who are sexually responsive, or who are simply being friendly. For many reasons, not least to protect a business against potential claims of harassment, employers must do their best to minimise the potential for any inappropriate conduct to occur between managers and supervisors and staff. 

So what should employers do?

Employers have a duty of care to their employees to make sure that they are safe and protected while at work. Employers must have clear policies in place on what types of behaviour are considered to be sexual harassment, and how complaints can be made. Policies should be well communicated to all staff, and staff should be educated on what is expected of them regarding behaviour in the workplace. 

In order to protect your business and staff against flirting going too far and turning into sexual harassment, contact WISE Workplace today for expert assistance with workplace investigations, anti-sexual harassment training and assistance with reviewing or drafting your policies.