Sexual harassment takes its Toll

It was just another typical day at the office for the senior executives at Toll Holdings.

A typical day at the office which involved asking their female colleagues to leave the room before donning aprons featuring Michelangelo’s David (complete with penis) and then simulating sex with a toy donkey.

Toll has now sprung into damage control, with the company’s human resources director saying Toll does not condone the executive’s behaviour and instituting counselling and disciplining of the staff involved.

I’m sure some people will argue that the response to what happened at the Toll conference is an over-reaction and that nobody was hurt by some light-hearted behaviour that just got out of hand.

But the problem here is that the behaviour of Toll’s senior executives can be seen as reflecting an underlying culture of sexism, bullying and harassment.

After all, it wasn’t the people in the mailroom participating in this behaviour or some casual contractors; it was the company’s top executives.

What’s shocking is that sexual harassment like this continues to take place in workplaces despite long-established and hard-fought legal frameworks for dealing with harassment.

What’s more, this sexual harassment occurred despite Toll having policies that deal with sexist behaviour and harassment – the company has promised “additional” training on appropriate workplace behaviour and the “reissuing” of relevant policies to staff.

Clearly at Toll the senior executives thought the policies which apply to everyone else don’t apply to them.

Sadly these sort of attitudes aren’t isolated to a handful of executives at Toll, if the situation seems all too familiar it’s probably because it follows the bullying claims made by a former Optus executive who is suing the telecommunications company for $14.5 million in damages based on allegations of ”bullying, suppression and victimisation”.

Or there’s the infamous sexual harassment battle between David Jones, its former chief executive Mark McInnes and its former junior publicist Kristy Kirk-Fraser, which ended in a confidential payment reported to be worth $850,000.

These cases all involve big companies which were well briefed on the law and which have policies in place as to what constitutes appropriate workplace behaviour.

Even Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Commissioner Karen Toohey has weighed in, telling Fairfax that there was a “disconnect” between Toll’s policies and the actual culture of the organisation “which says this behaviour is OK”.

Clearly it is one thing to have a policy in place and a whole other thing to put that policy into practice.

What happened at Toll is a reminder to all businesses that even if you have the appropriate policies you need to be vigilant about culture in your workplace.

Just having a policy doesn’t do much good for a harassment-free workplace when you are dealing with asses.


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