Hospital worker who was asked for a threesome at work Christmas party awarded $9000 in sexual harassment case

Hospital worker who was asked for a threesome at work Christmas party awarded $9000 in sexual harassment case

A café manager at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital has been awarded $9000 in compensation after it was found she was sexually harassed when her manager asked if she would participate in a sexual act.

Karen Bell, who was employed as the supervisor of food and retail services at a café at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, alleged her immediate supervisor Lindy Ralph harassed her on a number of occasions, including at a work Christmas party in December 2011.

At the party, Bell says Ralph asked if she would join in her and another colleague in a “threesome” as she wanted to “experiment with people she knew”.

At the same party, Bell said Ralph asked if she thought her “breasts were nice” and lifted her shirt in front of Bell.

Bell said Ralph made other inappropriate comments at another work function earlier that month, including telling her “I’m not wearing any undies”, and throughout 2012 was “aggressive and abusive” towards her, which she interpreted as being linked to Bell’s refusal to have sex with her.

As a result, Bell said she developed a psychological injury, which was compounded by Queensland Health’s allegedly not taking any steps to prevent the harassment.

While Ralph denied the allegations, Queensland Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal member Fiona Fitzpatrick sided with Bell in a recently published judgment, finding her psychological injury was materially caused by the incident at the Christmas party and was the subsequent “bullying and aggressive management at the hands of Ms Ralph. Ralph and Queensland Health were ordered to pay $9000 in compensation.

A spokesperson for Queensland Health told SmartCompany the government has paid the compensation order and will not be appealing the decision.

“Queensland Health is committed to providing employees with a safe, secure and productive work environment, free from harassment,” the spokesperson says.

“We have a zero tolerance approach to workplace harassment and sexual harassment.”

Alana Heffernan, a lawyer in Maurice Blackburn’s employment and industrial law team, told SmartCompany the case “really highlights that even one single remark can be extremely inappropriate and cause significant psychological distress for a person”.

“It highlights to businesses the need to not only have policies in place, but to provide training to their employees about the policies in the lead up to Christmas,” she says.

Heffernan says the case also emphasises the importance of employers investigating any allegation of harassment, even if a remark may seem trivial, and to ensure the person making the allegation is not blamed in any way or their complaint is muddled with counter-allegations about their work performance.

“It is very important for employers to minimise their liability by first preventing this from happening and if it does happen, dealing with it swiftly and seriously,” Heffernan says.

READ MORE: Five tips to keep it together at your work Christmas party

Workplace lawyer Peter Vitale told SmartCompany he was surprised the order for compensation was not higher, given other recent sexual harassment cases that have resulted in much higher penalties.

While Bell’s case was heard before the landmark Oracle judgment in July, Vitale says the relative low level of damages awarded in this case may demonstrate “the state jurisdictions and state tribunals are taking a little bit longer to get where the superior courts are at”.

Nevertheless, Vitale says it is a warning to employers of the seriousness with which they need to approach allegations of sexual harassment, particularly at a time of year when social functions are more common.

“Employers need to be aware of the measures they should take to try to avoid this sort of conduct,” Vitale says.

“They also need to be aware of the fact compensation is increasingly likely to be much more than this case, not to mention the legal costs.”

“It could make for a very expensive Christmas”.

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