Responding to Bad Behaviour at the Christmas Party

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 27, 2019

It's no secret that both the good and the bad can be on display at the annual work Christmas party. While smiles and good cheer can and should be the main features at an end-of-year bash, some unfortunate behaviour can also arise. 

Alcohol abuse, sexual harassment and aggressive behaviour are just some of the less savoury possibilities. But despite the instinct to punish personnel who wander astray, it is vital that employers respond to Christmas misbehaviour in a manner which is both reasonable and proportionate.

Alcohol abuse/intoxication

For many workers and business owners, the idea of a Christmas party with zero alcohol is a rather bleak one. Secret Santa, sausage rolls and a few cool beverages tend to be part of the workplace festive tradition. Yet the results of intoxication at the work Christmas party are the stuff of unfortunate legend. Raised voices, wild dancing, lewd comments, recriminations and unwanted advances are just some of the potential products of the wrong mix of drinks.

Moderation is everything when it comes to the supply of alcohol at the end-of-year event. Plenty of forewarning to staff about rules and refreshments will also help to keep proceedings on an even keel.

sexual harassment

The well-known reduction of inhibitions caused by alcohol consumption can lead to one of the more serious Christmas party side-effects: sexual harassment. The working year is over, the relief is palpable and perhaps a perceived flirtation is taken in an unacceptable direction. Behaviour that would certainly be shunned in the ordinary workplace can seem 'up for grabs' in the glittery glow of the Christmas party lights.

Alcohol can of course be part of the unacceptable sexual harassment situation: yet sometimes just the high spirits of the Christmas party itself can lead to an array of unacceptable approaches and behaviours.

Aggressive behaviour 

As with misconceived flirtation, the office Christmas party can bring out the worst forms of aggressive behaviour. Personal tensions can simmer during the year, with the relief of the office party creating an unleashing of built-up emotion. Add alcohol to the mix, and there is a strong possibility that arguments, fights and even assaults will emerge.

Case study - keeping things proportionate 

The case of Keenan v Leighton Boral NSW Pty Ltd [2015] FWC 3156 reflects the need to act swiftly in response to Christmas party problems - yet to do so in a fair and measured way.

In this case, the Fair Work Commission was faced with the troubling situation of an employee becoming intoxicated and proceeding to swear, abuse and provide unwanted advances through the night. He was dismissed. However, the worker's excellent work record, combined with the employer's dubious provision of free-flowing alcohol, saw Keenan's dismissal overturned by the FWC.

In particular, it was noted that any disciplinary action needed to be reasonable and proportionate to the condemned behaviour. The limitless alcohol situation certainly did little to assist the employer's case. And while the employee's drunken behaviour was a nightmare of ill-conceived comments, actions and insults, the FWC noted that his long and notable record of service required the employer to be reasonable in response.

It is certainly a cautionary tale to employers supplying alcohol at Christmas parties. If no limits are placed upon the type and volume of alcohol consumed by workers across time, then a large part of the fault in such cases will no doubt be seen to rest with employers.

managing the christmas party risks 

When it comes to organising the annual Christmas party, it pays for employers to plan the event well in advance. All employees should be aware of the order of proceedings, times and expectations at the party. Employers should plan food and alcohol extremely well, working out how the judicious service of alcohol will be managed through the night.

Providing security staff on the night can also be an excellent way to keep emotions and good cheer under some sort of control!

The Keenan case certainly demonstrates the importance of undertaking a thorough and considered investigation before taking serious disciplinary action against an employee. In unfair dismissal claims, the Commission will not hesitate to find in favour of the applicant where the employer failed to apply proportionate disciplinary action. If you would like to ensure your investigation process is considered and enforceable, WISE provides full and supported investigation services, as well as investigation training for your staff. 

How to Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Unfortunately, dealing with allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace is an issue for many employers. Sexual harassment can take many forms, and cases are rarely "open and shut".

Once allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct have been made, they must be appropriately investigated and dealt with. However, prevention is always better than cure.

Let's take a look at employer obligations, the scale of the problem and how employers can help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

obligation to provide a safe workplace 

Employers are required by law to provide a safe workplace for all employees. This is enshrined in the workplace health and safety legislation throughout Australia (for example, s19 of the Workplace Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW)).

Legislation requires employers to provide for physical safety, for example, by preventing unsafe worksite practices which could cause injuries to employees. It also extends to ensuring that employees are protected against physical and psychological harm caused by sexual harassment or assault, and mental harm (such as could be caused by bullying or harassment).

The facts - workplace sexual harassment

A 2018 sexual harassment study conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission, found that one in three Australian workers claim to have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years. This figure has increased from one in five workers in 2012, and one in ten in 2003. Of course, this may be due to employees becoming more aware of what sexual harassment is and what their rights are in relation to reporting or taking steps to report and prevent it. However, it is still a worrying statistic.

Interestingly, although sexual harassment affects both genders (with 26% of men and 39% of women interviewed reporting experiences of sexual harassment), those most likely to be harassed in the workplace are aged between 18 and 29. Moreover, despite the fairly equal gender split in victimology, the overwhelming majority (80%) of harassers are men.

Tips for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace 

There are a number of strategies that can help employers nip sexual harassment in the bud. These include:

  • Management support. It is essential that all levels of management, but particularly the highest levels of the executive team, embrace an anti-harassment culture. This is particularly important when one considers that, at least anecdotally, there may be a perception that sexual victimisation is a top-down phenomenon. It is important for management to demonstrate that no type of sexual harassment will be tolerated in the workplace. Similarly, the executives of any workplace must demonstrate that they will deal swiftly and appropriately with those who have been found to have engaged in sexual harassment. Ultimately, it is essential that the entire business receives the message that sexual victimisation will not be tolerated on any level. This also means that appropriate conduct by managers should always be encouraged.
  • Creation of a sexual harassment policy. A clear, detailed and easily accessible sexual harassment policy should be created, setting out exactly what the company's position on such harassment is. This should include the specific behaviours that will constitute sexual harassment and will not be tolerated. It must also be widely circulated amongst staff, ideally with a sign-off required confirming that staff have read and understood the policy.
  • Provision of training. Again, this should be rolled out company-wide, and conducted on a regular basis. It is important that there is general awareness, not only of what is defined to be sexual harassment, but an understanding of what rights and remedies are available to those who feel that they have been a victim of this type of harassment.
  • Encouraging a positive workplace environment. By implementing the above steps, a positive environment will be fostered, which will also encourage staff at all levels to be proactive about preventing sexual harassment or calling it out when it occurs.

the need for employer action

In addition to the general requirement to provide safe working conditions for staff, there are other positive obligations on employers in relation to sexual harassment.

For example, in Victoria, the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (VIC) imposes a positive duty on employers to prevent any sort of sexual harassment from occurring.

Similarly, employers Australia-wide may be deemed to be vicariously liable for the conduct of their employees, if it can be demonstrated that they did not take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment (per the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth)).

In order to protect the business, it is crucial that immediate and appropriate action by way of response to a sexual harassment notification occurs. Training managers and staff about sexual harassment and the company's stance on it is vital.

Sexual harassment in the workplace continues to be a great concern for both employees and employers. Taking active steps and educating staff is crucial in reducing the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace. Accordingly, WISE Workplace offers employers training programs to address and investigate workplace sexual harassment, as well as independent investigation services to review such behaviours. 


Is Briginshaw Still the Best Way of Solving the Puzzle?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 19, 2018

As any HR manager will testify, conducting workplace investigations is one of the most important but vexed aspects of ensuring that an organisation runs smoothly. 

This is particularly the case when the various parties involved in an investigation are putting forward different versions of events - who do you know who to believe? For many years, workplace investigators have employed the Briginshaw test. 

The standard of proof in investigations such as these is on the balance of probabilities. The case of Briginshaw v Briginshaw (1930) 60 CLR 336 is generally regarded as authority for the proposition that if a finding, on the balance of probabilities, is likely to produce grave consequences the evidence should be of high probative value.

But how is this test applied to resolve disputes and make findings in workplace enquiries?

what is it?

The Briginshaw test refers to the civil standard of proof employed in the legal system, specifically in the 1938 divorce case of Briginshaw v Briginshaw. A 'standard of proof' refers to the evidence required by a court or, in the workplace context, an employer or investigator, to make a determination as to the likely truth or otherwise of allegations. 

Although the criminal burden of proof requires evidence to support a finding of 'beyond reasonable doubt', the civil standard only requires an assessment on the balance of probabilities - that is, whether it is more likely than not that one version of events occurred rather than another. 

In Briginshaw, the High Court warned that making a decision on the balance of probabilities does not require a purely mathematical 'weighing up' of the likelihood of one version of events being true over another. Instead, the decision in Briginshaw supports a conclusion that sufficient evidence has been provided if "the affirmative of an allegation is made out to the reasonable satisfaction of the tribunal". In the workplace context, the tribunal determining the matter is the investigator. 

CASE STUDY - SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN CITY HALL

In workplace investigations, individuals are required to respond to allegations, as was the case with the (now former) Lord Mayor of Melbourne. In late 2017, Robert Doyle was accused of having sexually harassed two female councillors by inappropriately touching them. 

In March 2018, an investigation conducted by a Queen's Counsel was finalised, although Mr Doyle had already resigned by this time. Given the seriousness of the allegations and the potential consequences, the investigation relied on the Briginshaw test, and applied a standard whereby the investigator was 'reasonably satisfied' that the specific allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct related to Mr Doyle in his role as Lord Mayor. 

In Mr Doyle's case, the investigators accordingly based their determination on being "satisfied to a level which goes beyond the mere likelihood that something happened" that the allegations could be substantiated. 

The findings included that specific allegations were substantiated. More specifically the investigator made three adverse findings of sexually inappropriate conduct, and a fourth finding that the three matters occurred in the context of the Mayor having consumed substantial amounts of red wine. 

Factors which were taken into account in making this determination, included the likelihood of Mr Doyle having engaged in the behaviour because he had consumed significant amounts of red wine, and his credibility as a witness. The investigation also noted that one of the complainants made contemporaneous complaints and was consistent in her allegations. 

The report stated no findings had been made by a court or tribunal based on the information reported on as part of the investigation, however, if proven the behaviour could constitute sexual harassment within the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010, and gross misconduct under the Local Government Act 1989.

what can we learn?

One difficulty with applying the Briginshaw test in workplace investigations, is that an investigation does not constitute a judicial process. Accordingly, participants give information on a voluntary basis only. 

This inability to compel testimony or information from witnesses may mean that a determination is made on the balance of probabilities - but without having all information available. Indeed, in the absence of a court or the threat of perjury, there is no real compulsion for accurate information to be given in a workplace investigation. Undue reliance on such information could result in an unjust determination. 

Failure to recognise the difference between a court and the role of an investigator can lead to mistakes, and allegations can be left unsubstantiated in circumstances when they may have occurred. In circumstances where the investigator is inexperienced or does not have access to all required information, it may well result in an inequitable outcome, or a situation where a conclusion is made based on partial information or poor facts. 

When a workplace or employee faces allegations, its important for the investigator to ask the relevant questions, examine documents, and analyse all relevant evidence carefully when making conclusions about what occurred. Making findings using the Briginshaw principle and explaining the reasoning behind the outcomes of the investigation can assist employers in considering what further action needs to be taken in light of the findings. 

It is important for employers and investigators to ensure that findings of workplace investigations will withstand the highest level of scrutiny. A higher level of skill will be required from an investigator when circumstantial or uncorroborated evidence is being considered. 

If you require assistance analysing evidence, or conducting an investigation, contact WISE today!  

Managing Complaints - How To Find The Positive

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 13, 2018

When an employee complaint alleging workplace discrimination or harassment is lodged, it is usually seen as a negative moment in the life of the organisation.

However, it is possible for an employer to view this as a positive phenomenon, rather than a sign of complete failure. This is because well-handled complaints can illuminate hidden corporate weaknesses, as well as any lurking issues affecting staff morale or motivation. Such information can become a valuable catalyst for positive change across the broader business - a win-win for internal and external stakeholders alike.

Best-practice in complaints handling is dependent upon a structured complaints process that includes two key ingredients: the quality of investigation process and the structure of the complaints process itself.

1. A thorough high-quality workplace investigation is an essential tool in the management of internal complaints, including allegations of discrimination and harassment.

2. The structural framework of internal complaints policies and procedures will necessarily be clear, accessible and well-publicised. A well-managed complaint can be a good news story not only for the people involved, but for the broader success of the business.

INVESTIGATING DISCRIMINATION AND HARASSMENT 

When an employee complains that they have been the subject of discrimination or harassment, it is highly likely that there will be differing opinions and perspectives as to whether or not this is actually the case.

As a result, best-practice workplace investigation requires fair, open and even-handed treatment of all who are involved in the investigative process. Further, it is important for investigators to move at a reasonable and logical pace, first making preliminary enquiries before deciding on any next steps.

But what does a good investigation mean on the ground? One key concept is procedural fairness. This means that parties involved are equally able to access the process, to be heard in a substantive way and to be given a fair opportunity to understand and respond adequately to any claims made against them. Under procedural fairness parties have the right to an impartial decision-maker and to having a support person present during their interview. Professional investigators must be seen to be unbiased in every phase of the workplace investigation.

Added to this, a high-quality workplace investigation will ensure that all relevant and reliable evidence has been carefully obtained, anaylsed and included appropriately in the final report. There can be no room for short cuts or preferential treatment in workplace investigations.       

Robust complaints policies and procedures

Employers, investigators, complainants and witnesses alike should ideally all have access to a durable set of internal policies and procedures covering common areas of complaint.

A strong policy document detailing how and to whom to make a complaint should be accessible, user-friendly and up-to-date. The policy should also direct the reader to one or more procedures that need to be followed in the event that an alleged instance of harassment or discrimination has occurred. This is often a time of great stress, and instructions to complainants should be clear and helpful.

Internal policies and procedures that are complicated, badly written or tucked away in a dusty filing cabinet are of little-to-no assistance to the individual seeking to make a complaint.

This is why good investigations and good complaints policies go hand-in-hand: even the best investigator will struggle to keep things fair if complaints policies are convoluted or absent, or if procedures leading up to the investigation are sub-optimal.

Perhaps most importantly, managers and employees should be trained in practically accessing and using these documents, at all stages being assured that complaints are taken seriously and are indeed welcomed by the organisation.

Step by step pathways

A sound complaints process begins with employees first being made aware of a useable and fair pathway for their grievance. A good internal complaints system will work step-by-step through a logical process. This means initially providing clear and succinct information on the nature of common complaints, some definitions where appropriate, the bigger picture of the complaints process and - perhaps most importantly - who to speak with in the first instance about the particular concern.

An internal complaint is a golden opportunity for employers to gain important information about people and workplaces. For this reason, the internal complaints system should be presented in a simple, cordial and helpful format.

Problems arise every day that require the existence of an effective complaints and investigations pathway. Thankfully many complaints can be quickly and easily resolved. However, if you need to undertake investigations or a review of your HR policies, and want to ensure you are conducting it with best practice, our training is developed by investigators for investigators. Contact WISE today to find out more.

When Workplace Relationships Go Wrong

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Given how much time employees spend at work every week, it is hardly surprising that romantic relationships develop in the workplace. 

But what happens when a romance is inappropriate, or attraction crosses the line into sexual harassment?

inappropriate vs unlawful

While there is nothing illegal about a workplace relationship between two consenting adults, in some circumstances it can be inappropriate, for example a romance between a manager and a subordinate. 

There is also a significant difference between mutual and enacted sexual attraction, and unlawful conduct such as unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment or even abuse or assault. Sexual harassment is unlawful under both the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic). Sexual abuse and/or assault is a criminal offence.

the issues and consequences

Workplace relationships can become problematic, particularly in situations where a relationship involves two employees, one of whom oversees the other's performance, management or appraisal. 

Other co-workers may feel aggrieved by a real or perceived bias involving any decisions made by the more senior worker involved in the relationship. Team morale can suffer if one member is seen to be treated more favourably than the rest when it comes to performance appraisals, the allocation of work and promotional opportunities. 

Partly for this reason, employers may be tempted to dismiss employees who have not disclosed the nature of their romantic relationships. The legality of any such dismissal is questionable - however, previous decisions of the Fair Work Commission have suggested that employees may be dismissed in cases where employees are untruthful when they are challenged about the existence of workplace relationships. 

Employees may also make unwanted advances to other employees, as a result of innocently misinterpreting signs of perceived sexual interest. While there's nothing wrong with a co-worker asking a colleague out on a date or making an advance, there is a problem if the 'advancer' fails to accept and move on from any rebuff. 

The potential for negative fallout when a relationship ends is also a key concern for most employers. This is particularly the case if one party wants the relationship to continue while the other party wants to move on - ongoing attention may tip over into sexual harassment. 

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment is 'any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. Sexual harassment is not interaction, flirtation or friendship which is mutual or consensual'.

From an employer's perspective, if sexual misconduct occurs in the workplace (or at employer-sanctioned events such as Christmas parties or other functions) then the business may well be vicariously liable.

There is certainly potential for litigation or unwanted media attention and brand damage as a consequence of sexual misconduct or an inappropriate relationship.    

what can an employer do to minimise the fallout? 

From a risk mitigation perspective, employers should ensure that they have adequately drafted and communicated workplace policies.

At a minimum, these policies should include: 

  • Clear guidelines on the permissibility of relationships between co-workers and when such relationships should be disclosed; 
  • Procedures for what should happen when such a relationship is disclosed, for example when a change in reporting structure is required;
  • A clause addressing conflict of interest and perceived bias (especially when relationships occur between senior and junior staff);
  • A clause defining sexual misconduct, highlighting the definition of sexual harassment and what kind of behaviour will not be tolerated in the workplace. 
  • Workplace policies that promote awareness of all gender related issues, including sexual harassment. 

It is common for relationships and attractions to develop in the workplace. As an employer, it is important to ensure that these circumstances do not lead to incidents of sexual harassment or perceptions of conflict of interest. 

Employers should ensure that they address all complaints of sexual harassment with care. If you have had complaints regarding sexual harassment, or are concerned about potential bias, WISE provides full and supported investigation services

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.  

When Gender is Irrelevant: Male-On-Male Workplace Harassment

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Sexual harassment and predatory behaviour can happen to anybody. When most people think about this type of conduct, it is generally in the context of male-to-female harassment or, perhaps more rarely, female-to-male harassment. However, this is simply not the case - sexual harassment can be perpetrated by anybody towards anybody. 

A recent decision of the Civil and Administrative Tribunal of NSW highlights the potential for employees to be victims of sexual harassment and victimisation in the workplace, regardless of their gender. 

The decision in Kordas v Ruba & Jo Pty Ltd t/a Aztec Hair & Beauty also affirms the entitlement of workers to financial compensation when they have been subjected to sexual harassment. 

Inappropriate behaviour

In Kordas, the worker complained about various instances of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment during his employment as an apprentice hairdresser working for the respondent. 

The behaviour complained of by the worker included:

  • Being told by his employer that workers were similar to racehorses because 'they need a pat on the bum to go faster'.
  • Having his supervisor tell clients that he and the worker were similar to a gay couple and that they were very 'close'. 
  • Being followed into a private area, slapped on the buttocks with a ruler by his trainer and being asked to smack him back because the trainer 'like[d] being slapped on the bum'.
  • Humiliation by the trainer when he threw a hair clip onto the ground, in the worker's opinion, because the employer wanted to see him bend over. 
  • The trainer complaining that the worker had incorrectly clipped a cape onto a client
  • Feeling harassed when the worker asked the trainer if he felt they got along and the response was yes, because 'you're my bitch'. 
  • Upon complaining to his employer and asking why he was referred to as the salon 'bitch', being told 'I used to work in a restaurant. All the boys used to grab me by my boobs'. 
  • Being grabbed around the waist and physically moved by his supervisor instead of being asked to move out of the way. 
  • Having his palm stroked in a flirtatious manner by his employer when he was handed money for errands. 

The worker had initially complained to his boss, who was also the director and owner of the business running the hair salon, about being victimised. But no action was taken, and the worker was ultimately dismissed. 

The history of complaints

The apprentice stated that he had not complained initially about the inappropriate behaviour because he had wanted to keep his job. 

However, in February 2015, the worker finally complained to the employer about various issues he was experiencing, including very low wages, ongoing harassment and feeling that he was being sabotaged. Although the employer initially promised that everything would be sorted out, he then made the above mentioned comment, likening hairdressers to racehorses. 

At this time, the worker demanded changes in his treatment, but the employer denied ever having received any complaints or personally witnessed any harassment. 

The employer then advised the worker that there were no senior staff available to continue his training and dismissed him. The stress and emotions suffered by the worker as a result of this treatment ultimately caused him to leave his chosen profession of hairdressing, working instead as a barber. 

Findings of the tribunal

Upon hearing the complaints, Tribunal Senior Member Scahill and General Member Newman commented that although the harassing behaviour was not the worst they had ever seen, it had clearly impacted upon the apprentice in a very significant way and had caused him to change his future career plans. 

The nature of some of the inappropriate behaviour was found to be sexual harassment, particularly the physical contact and comments regarding being a 'bitch' and a 'gay couple'. Moreover, the significant disparity in power between an employer or senior employee and an apprentice was such that the worker was reasonably and clearly intimidated, humiliated and harassed. 

The employing business was also held vicariously liable for the conduct on the basis that it had failed to ensure a workplace free of harassment and had failed to appropriately respond to the worker's complaints. 

The worker was awarded compensation comprising:

  • $5,000 in general damages for the sexual harassment by the employer
  • $10,000 in damages for the trainer's sexual harassment
  • $15,000 for victimisation

As this case demonstrates sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct can occur in any workplace, and between any gender. If you are concerned about a case of potential harassment at your organisation, contact us for assistance. We offer both supported and full workplace investigation services. 

Considering Suspending an Employee? What Should You Know

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 06, 2017

When faced with an allegation of serious misconduct made against a worker, an organisation may seek to suspend the respondent. 

But in what situations is it appropriate to take this kind of action?

tHE LEGALITY OF SUSPENSION 

When taking the significant step of temporarily suspending an employee, an organisation must be able to demonstrate an objectively good reason for doing so. 

Once preliminary enquiries have indicated that there is prima facie evidence to support an allegation of serious misconduct, a risk assessment needs to be carried out, to determine what the risks are associated with suspending or not suspending the respondent. 

The risk assessment should include: 

  • Risks to the complainant and other workers should the respondent remain in the workplace and the potential psychological impact this may have, especially in cases of sexual harassment
  • Risks of the respondent interfering with witnesses or tampering with evidence
  • Potential impact of suspending or not suspending the respondent on the morale of the workforce and the reputation of the organisation
  • Potential impact of suspension on the respondent
  • Whether the suspension or non-suspension is in accordance with the relevant disciplinary policy. 

Generally, it is appropriate to suspend a worker if an investigation into their serious misconduct is being carried out, and their continued presence in the workplace may jeopardise the process. This could include concerns about the misconduct continuing undue influence on or harassment of witnesses, or safety and security issues.

It is important to bear in mind the distinction between 'standing down' and 'suspending' an employee.

In a 'stand down' situation, the employee has not necessarily done anything wrong but the employer cannot usefully employ them for reasons that are outside the employer's control - for example, a fruit picker who cannot continue working during a significant weather event. In those situations, the employee is not paid during the stand down period. 

However, during a suspension period, the employee remains entitled to all rights of their employment contract, except the right to attend work to undertake work duties. 

An alternative to suspension could include redeploying the employee into another area, if the conduct is not of the most serious kind and or if the employer has an alternative site or role available. 

Circumstances leading to suspension 

Suspension should only be utilised in the most serious situations, where the only appropriate next step would likely be termination of employment. 

As such, appropriate circumstances leading to a suspension of an employee generally include accusations of serious misconduct such as defined in Regulation 1.07(2) of the Fair Work Regulations 2009 (Cth)

  • Willful or deliberate behaviour by an employee that is inconsistent with the continuation of the contract of employment;
  • Conduct that causes serious and imminent risk to the health or safety of a person; or
  • Conduct that causes serious and imminent risk to the reputation, viability or profitability of the employer's business;
  • The employee, in the course of the employee's employment, engaging in:
            • theft;
            • fraud; or
            • assault;
  •  The employee being intoxicated at work; and
  • The employee refusing to carry out a lawful and reasonable instruction that is consistent with the employee's contract of employment. 

Generally, it is appropriate for an employee to be suspended at the beginning of a workplace investigation, although the employee can be suspended during the course of the investigation if it becomes apparent that their presence is or could be interfering with the investigation.

Appropriate conduct by an employer during a suspension

During a period of suspension, an employee is generally asked to keep away from the workplace, colleagues and clients of the business. If they are on full pay then they are generally not entitled to conduct any outside of work employment without the employers consent. 

Although a suspension may be the precursor of a final dismissal once the investigation has been finalised, employees who have been suspended remain entitled to a number of rights, including:

  • Full pay during the period of the suspension
  • Regular review of the suspension period
  • An endeavour to keep the suspension as short as possible
  • A clear explanation of the reasons for the suspension and the anticipated length of the suspension
  • An explanation of the employer's expectations of the employee during the suspension period, such as requiring the employee to be available by telephone during normal business hours. 
  • An assigned contact within the human resources or management team with whom the suspended employee can liaise. 

Avoiding further legal issues

Suspending an employee from the workplace is a serious intrusion on their employment and personal rights. It is essential that employers ensure that all criteria of appropriate conduct are met, in order to avoid a situation where it may be argued that the suspension amounted to a constructive dismissal. Ensuring procedural fairness, transparency and clarity in the process will assist with this objective. 

If you require assistance with a workplace investigation where an employee has been suspended, contact us. We provide full independent and transparent investigation services, or supported investigations where we offer advice and guidance as you compete the process.

The Risk of Ignoring Reports of Sexual Abuse

- Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The matter of  Matthew v Winslow Constructions Pty Ltd brings to light the importance of duty of care in a sexual harassment matter. The Supreme Court of Victoria has awarded an employee over $1.3 million in damages after finding that her employer was negligent in failing to provide a safe working environment and allowing her to be subjected to extensive abuse, 

This case bares similarities to Trolan v WD Gelle Insurance and Finance Brokers notable for a number of interlinked reasons. Damage and loss caused by the sexual harassment and bullying behaviour in question led to the sizable sum of $733,723 in compensation being awarded to the plaintiff in the NSW District Court earlier this month. Triggered by a verbal complaint made by the plaintiff to a director of the company, the case was characterised by significant failures to act on the part of the employer. 

Long gone are the days when a written complaint of such behaviour is needed. The Trolan and Matthews matters both demonstrate that where such extreme behaviour is occurring in the workplace, employees don’t need to put concerns to the employer in written form in order to ‘inform’ the employer of the conduct. This thinking certainly might give pause for thought for both employers and workplace investigators – off the record chats about disturbing sexual harassment and/or bullying might well be all the notification that is required. 

Courage TO TELL 

In August 2008, Ms Matthews commenced working as a labourer with Winslow Contractors. Between August 2008 and early July 2010, Ms Matthews was subjected to a relentless assortment of unwanted and lewd sexual advances from a number of site workers, including by her foreman. The behaviour included several threats of physical and sexual assault, intimidation, and bullying. On occasions when Ms Matthews verbally complained to management, nothing appeared to be done about her complaints. In September 2009, Ms Matthews was moved to a different site crew and the behaviour stopped. However, in late June 2010 Ms Matthews was moved back to the original site and the behaviours resumed, including the threat of rape. Ms Matthews reported the matters over the telephone, on 1 July 2010, to whom she believed was the person in charge of HR. Instead of a change in the behaviours occurring, Ms Matthews was further harassed and asked to 'come round, we will have a drink and talk about it'

SILENT DAMAGE

Ms Matthews did not return to work after 1 July 2010 and was found by her doctor to have suffered a severe work-related injury, with an incapacity to work again. The essential cause of her diagnosed psychiatric illnesses, including PTSD, was the sexual harassment and bullying that she had endured over a period of time while working at Winslow Contractors. And for part of this time, it was with the full knowledge of her employer. 

LISTEN OUT

Busy employers can be tempted to argue that they can’t be everywhere at once. Although employers are certainly not blind to the potential for unacceptable behaviour, there can however be an built-in assumption that if someone has a problem in the workplace, they should go through formal channels to remedy this. Generally, this would include submitting a written complaint about the alleged conduct. Yet as seen in Matthews the burden rests largely with the employer to detect and resolve any such occurrences. That Ms Matthews had two discussions with a representative of the employer was certainly sufficient grounds to say she provided notice about the offending conduct. 

LINGERING PAIN

The consequences of such a failure to respond to sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace can be wide-reaching. Where an injury is suffered, as in Matthews, compensation is evidently payable. This will often take the form of both long-term statutory payments and sizeable common law damages. Failures to follow workplace health and safety procedures can lead to considerable penalties, compliance orders and fines. As well as requiring a substantial workplace investigation to ascertain the details of the alleged behaviour, criminal charges might ensue and/or civil action on grounds of negligence might be brought against the employer to remedy the failure to act; A complex and damaging array of legal and financial consequences indeed. 

WORDS ARE ENOUGH 

It is that failure to act that can cause so much preventable harm. At the moment when the Area Site Manager was told verbally of the conduct, the employer was officially informed and was required to act. Yet this damaging and ultimately costly chain of events was allowed to continue, causing a serious breach of the employer’s duty to protect. Employers are obliged to create a workplace free from harm. And when an employee has the courage and strength to report the offending behaviour, employers must both listen and respond. Written notes, formal documents or approved forms need not be furnished in circumstances such as those faced by Ms Matthews. Her verbal revelation of the disturbing situation in which she found herself sufficed to put the employer on notice. 

ACT EARLY 

The lesson from Matthews? Don’t brush breaches of workplace health and safety such as sexual harassment and bullying under the carpet. A bill of $1.3 Million for a failure to act is much more than loose change. If an employee says that these behaviours are occurring, or if it is observed, don’t wait for written confirmation. Act early with appropriate modes of discussion and/or investigation. In this way, an organisation can stay strong, productive and safe for all.

For information on how WISE Workplace can assist to develop your business's ability to respond to complaints of seriousness misconduct, call 1300 580 685 or visit our website