Protecting Whistleblowers: Are You Ready for the Changes?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 05, 2018

With new whistleblower protections to take effect in early 2019, it is essential that organisations understand the broad legislative changes to the Corporations Act 2001 due to be debated in Parliament. In addition to the requirement for formal mechanisms and strategies to protect and assist whistleblowers, both public and large private corporations will need to be able to 'spread the word' to staff in a practical way. 

Successfully embedding the changes to whistleblower protections into your organisation requires clear understanding, action and communication. With 2019 just around the corner, the time is right to ensure that you have all the information that you need to meet the new obligations.

WHat is the definition of a 'whistleblower'? 

Blowing a whistle has always been a common method for citizens to warn others of significant problems such as overcrowding, bad sportsmanship or dangerous waters. Whistleblowing has nevertheless developed some negative connotations in the corporate world. 

Despite the need to guard against corruption and corporate wrongdoing, corporations have in the past done little to actively protect those who speak up from being harmed. The new regime, due to be enacted in early 2019, includes compensation for any whistleblower who suffers statutorily-defined 'detriment'. 

No longer will the definition of whistle blower be restricted to current employees: past and present contractors, workers, suppliers, family members and many other stakeholders can rely upon the new protections.

who the changes apply to 

The proposed changes to the Corporations Act 2001 will effectively ensure that large employers provide the incentive, means and protection for individuals to blow the whistle when corporate wrongdoing is suspected. The changes formalise the legal protections that have been available in a relatively piecemeal manner across time. 

The new regime will mandate that all Australian public companies, large proprietary companies, and registerable superannuation entities will have compliant whistleblower policies in place by early 2019. Further, it will be necessary to demonstrate that stakeholders can safely and anonymously exercise their right to blow the whistle on corrupt practices. 

reach of the new bill

The demands on corporations flowing from the changes to whistleblower laws via the Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistle-blower Protections) Bill 2017 can certainly seem daunting. As an example, the new Bill requires that corporations provide clear, comprehensive and anonymous pathways for any staff or stakeholders who wish to report suspected wrongdoing. 

This includes demonstrating that policies and procedures designed to promote and protect whistleblowing are accessible by all stakeholders. Further, access to an anonymous helpline is crucial to ensure that parties can talk freely about any suspicions of wrongdoing. 

The reach of the new Bill includes the ability to look at past corruption and in some cases to award damages to workers or others who have suffered detriment in the past as the result of blowing the whistle.

next steps? 

In the short time remaining between now and when the new whistleblower changes come into being, it is essential that all relevant organisations audit their current practices relevant to the new Bill. To assist our clients in understanding the proposed changes, we have published a white paper, which is available for free download. 

One core offering that we provide is our industry-leading Grapevine Confidential Whistleblower Hotline. Staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Grapevine provides employees with the opportunity to make anonymous complaints to trusted and experienced operators. 

WISE has provided Grapevine since 2016, and the hotline enhances the way our clients manage their business, but also allows them be legally compliant with the new regulations. January 2019 is fast approaching. If you would like any additional information or an obligation free proposal, contact WISE today! 

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.