Earlier this month one of the most high-profile sexual harassment cases globally went to trial – Harvey Weinstein. The celebrity and scale of the trial makes it seem distant, far removed from Australian workplaces.
But the fear of retribution and victimisation experienced by his victims over many years highlights how much work still needs to be done to make workplaces safe for women.
The Australian Human Rights Commission’s latest workplace sexual harassment survey, brings home the urgency of the situation in our own workplaces, with almost one in five people who reported sexual harassment either labelled a trouble-maker; ostracised, victimised or ignored by colleagues; and/or resigned.
Despite sexual harassment being prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act (1984) and under various state based legislation, its ongoing prevalence clearly demonstrates the inadequacy of current legal provisions.
In other areas of law, such as workplace health and safety, employers have an obligation to protect employees. It’s time for a similar response to workplace sexual harassment, which must include three key components for success: investment in prevention, effective complaints management and finally, ongoing support and case management.
Investment in prevention
Organisations need clear policies and processes which are easily available to all staff, but prevention is much more than a policy. It requires leaders to acknowledge that gender norms and gendered power differentials affect our daily decisions and interactions, and invest in disrupting the status quo.
Ask most organisations how they are investing in prevention, and they’ll point at their training program. While an important first step, training cannot simply be in the form of a one-off, online, generic module. It needs to involve comprehensive bystander training on acceptable workplace conduct and intervention tips, include scenarios relevant to each individual workplace, focus on the areas of ‘grey’ which could cause issues and debunk myths.
Employees who call out unconscious bias, challenge or report poor behaviours should be recognised, and there should be consequences for those employers who choose to ignore the issue – the same way that there would be consequences for someone who did not take safety seriously in most Australian workplaces today.
Effective complaints management
At present the onus for reporting sexual harassment sits on the shoulders of the victim. To make a report, the individual would need to be aware of an employer’s policies and reporting channels, available external channels or have the resources to seek legal advice and support.
The person would need to trust the complaints handling process and that they would be believed and protected from further harassment or repercussions. The result – only 17 percent of people who experience sexual harassment in the workplace report it.
When a complaint is made it is critical that a timely, fair and objective process is followed and to the extent possible, confidentiality is maintained.
In many cases of sexual harassment, there is ‘low quality’ evidence, owing to the fact that incidents often take place away from witnesses. An investigation that determines that there is not enough evidence to substantiate the claim cannot be closed or ignored.
Instead a plan must be put around the individuals involved to ensure their safety and that they can continue in their roles free from the fear of reprisal or continuance of the behaviour.
Ongoing support and case management
Little is known about the long term impacts of workplace sexual harassment, mostly due to the sad fact that most complainants leave their role, making organisational data about well-being or career progression difficult to capture.
It is clear that people who experience sexual harassment face significant psychological consequences including anxiety, feelings of powerlessness and depression. Where a sexual harassment complaint has been made, supports need to be put around the complainant – proactively identifying how the person would like to work going forward, how they feel safe, any triggers they can identify and regular check-ins with them. If the alleged harasser is still in the workplace, ensuring distance between individuals and providing parties with ongoing support will be critical.
Most organisations do not capture data on the percentage of complainants who are retained two years after making a complaint – but this data is critical to any leader who is committed to ensuring there are no long term consequences of coming forward.
Soon, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins will release the findings of the National Inquiry into workplace sexual harassment. Instead of being shocked by the data, we need to be ready to strengthen legal provisions requiring organisations to focus on prevention, to ask the right questions of our reporting channels and ensure that ongoing support is provided to all complainants.
We need bystanders to be equipped to step in and interrupt sexual harassment when it is witnessed. We need to be ready to stand with victims and truly say that we have a zero tolerance to these behaviours.