Peter Strong: Why COSBOA ‘strongly supports’ the Respect@Work report recommendations to address sexual harassment

Peter Strong budget

Former COSBOA chief Peter Strong. Source: supplied.

Yesterday the government released its reply to the Respect@Work report, which was released by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins last year.

COSBOA is positive and pleased that we as a society are addressing this important issue and recognising sexual harassment as a form of misconduct. Having an unsafe or unhappy workplace is not good for employees, not good for the owners of the business, and not good for productivity and business viability.

COSBOA was consulted comprehensively by Kate Jenkins and her team for the Respect@Work report, as they were keen to ensure that the needs of small business owners and workers in small business were considered. Jenkins understands that small businesses make up well over 90% of businesses in Australia and that their needs, and their employees’ needs, are often overlooked due to the difficulty of consulting such a large group.

Of course, small business owners should strive to create a safe and secure workplace. A workplace where people can earn an income, hopefully enjoy earning that income, and have a lifestyle that they need and a future they can bank on.

The only concern with regulating sexual harassment (and other types of unwanted behaviour) is just how much responsibility can reasonably placed upon a small business owner — a man, a woman, a family business, a couple — as they already bear the weight of the full gambit of regulations and processes that exist within the Australian business environment.

A particular concern is that, under the nature of ‘vicarious liability’, an employer can be held responsible for the behaviour and actions of an employee. For example, if an employee physically attacks another employee, the employer could be charged.

COSBOA understands this is right if the employer creates an environment that promotes violence and conflict. But we need to be careful about applying this to sexual harassment.

We do not support vicarious liability where the employer would reasonably expect employees to behave as per societal norms (i.e not harass their co-workers) but is still held to account. This is akin to an employer being responsible for someone’s poor upbringing.

Big businesses have human resources management teams and experts dedicated to promoting a positive workplace culture and ensuring that workplace needs are met. Small businesses have a small team who must work together for their own health and welfare whilst also running the business. This means regulations that result from this report must be fit for purpose, able to be understood and able to be implemented in a real and practical sense.

Overall, COSBOA supports the recommendations in the Respect@Work report and will work with the government to ensure that any regulations make sense and there are no unintended consequences.

The membership of COSBOA, being the women and men in associations with direct membership from men and women running businesses, are strongly supportive of changes to decrease sexual harassment in workplaces and elsewhere.

Let’s ensure the result is achieved and that we do not provide excuses for poor behaviour by blaming those who do not support such behaviour.


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