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’.
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.
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.
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.
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
Content retrieved from: http://www.wiseworkplace.com.au/_blog/WISE_Blog/post/the-risk-of-ignoring-reports-of-sexual-abuse/.