An Australian employee of software giant Oracle has won a sexual harassment case against the company in the Federal Court, with the business now forced to pay an $18,000 fine.
Program manager Rebecca Richardson won the case after arguing she was harassed by another employee, Randol Tucker, on 11 separate occasions in 2008 while they worked at a joint project.
Oracle Australia was found by the court to be “vicariously liable” for Tucker’s actions, and must pay the fine within the next 20 days.
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Tucker made comments to Richardson such as: “Rebecca, you and I fight so much, I think we were husband and wife in our last life,” and, “How do you think our marriage was? I bet the sex was hot.”
Justice Buchanan said in her decision she was satisfied Tucker did sexually harass Richardson.
However, the result is a mixed one. Richardson, who was represented by Harmers Workplace Lawyers, argued she would suffer future economic loss from Oracle’s actions after she complained about Tucker’s conduct. The court said this wasn’t the case.
“I am satisfied that Ms Richardson did suffer both physical and psychological consequences as a result of Mr Tucker’s conduct. Accordingly, compensation by way of damages must be assessed and awarded in her favour taking those matters into account,” Buchanan said.
“However, most of the claim for damages concerned alleged future economic loss, said to arise from Oracle’s conduct towards Ms Richardson after she complained about Mr Tucker’s conduct and from Mr Tucker’s conduct itself.
“The essential elements of this claim were not established,” Buchanan says.
In a statement from Harmers Workplace Lawyers, Richardson is said to be pleased about the result, but disappointed by the award of $18,000.
“Ms Richardson is pleased with the Court’s finding that Mr Tucker engaged in unlawful conduct whereby he sexually harassed her between April and November 2008.
“Ms Richardson is, however, disappointed by the amount of damages awarded and is considering her options for appeal,” the statement says.
Employment law principal with Maurice Blackburn, Giri Sivaraman, told SmartCompany his highest paying outcomes for sexual harassment cases have come from settlements rather than court cases.
“I think that Richardson certainly didn’t succeed in proving any economic loss. The ones with the highest outcomes usually settle.
“In my experience, some of the biggest outcomes I’ve ever got were achieved without issuing a single document in court. Companies are keen to settle when they recognise the seriousness of the issues,” he says.
Sivaraman says global companies, such as Oracle, sometimes take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to sexual harassment in the workplace.
“I’ve found many global companies I’ve encountered through some of my clients sometimes take a one-size-fits-all approach and don’t appreciate the specificities and the consequences outlined by the Australian system,” he says.
This is one of a few high-profile sexual harassment cases which have occurred in the Australian business community. In 2010, David Jones employee Kristy Fraser-Kirk sued the company over actions alleged by former chief executive Mark McInnes.
Fraser-Kirk had sought up to $37 million in damages from David Jones, but the case was settled with a confidential payment of an estimated $850,000, which was said to be split in payment between David Jones and McInnes.
Sivaraman says it’s important to note in the Richardson case the judge made a point of emphasising the failure of Oracle to note the Australian harassment laws and the consequences.
A report by the Human Rights Commission last year found 45% of women have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years.
The survey of 2,002 people also found women who speak up about the abuse are more likely to be labelled troublemakers by their colleagues, become ostracised and, in extreme cases, even demoted.
The number of victims of sexual harassment who suffer in the workplace after they complain has jumped from 16% to 29% since 2003.
Sivaraman says these figures are in line with what he’s witnessed in his own work.
“Unfortunately I have to say I have not seen a decrease in the number of clients who are the victims of sexual harassment. This is particularly seen in large corporations with women in senior positions. There’s certainly been no reduction,” he says.
For women who are subject to sexual harassment in the workplace, Sivaraman says to carefully record and keep evidence in case it is ever needed in a case.
“Firstly, document what is happening, make notes and save emails and messages. Well document it so you can prove it later. Also try and access an internal grievance procedure, otherwise access the external services of the Australian Human Rights Commission,” he says.