As claims against Don Burke continue, here’s what employers can do to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace

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The need for businesses to act swiftly on allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination — and in fact, prevent such behaviour from occurring in the first place — has once again been brought to the fore this week following serious allegations levelled at former TV presenter Don Burke.

The one-time host of the Nine Network’s Burke’s Backyard gardening program is at the centre of an ongoing investigation by the ABC and Fairfax into claims Burke indecently assaulted, sexually harassed and bullied a number of female employees and other women he interacted with in professional settings.

The allegations levelled at Burke, which he strongly denies, come after extensive reporting on sexual harassment claims made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and a slew of other high-profile men in the US media and entertainment industries.

There’s also no shortage of legal cases involving Australian employers being ordered to pay large sums of money to employees after sexual harassment and discrimination claims have been substantiated in court.

So what can employers do to ensure similar behaviour doesn’t occur in their own workplaces?

Back in 2014, HR specialists Janelle McKenzie and Abiramie Sathiamoorthy, founders of E&I People Solutions, wrote for SmartCompany about three key steps employers can take to approach the topic sexual harassment and discrimination with their team in order to best prevent it.

As McKenzie and Sathiamoorthy explained at the time, the cost and detrimental effects of sexual harassment in a workplace and be “devastating” on a number of levels.

“Employee safety, morale, workplace culture, productivity, company reputation and financials are all at risk of being severely compromised if incidents of sexual harassment or discrimination occur and are not dealt with appropriately.”

Here’s an edited version of their article, which was first published on November 17, 2014.

Most employers would probably like to think that sexual harassment or discrimination isn’t something that would happen in their business but, unfortunately, the data suggests otherwise. In a national survey conducted by the Human Rights Commission in 2012, it was reported that 21% of respondents were sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years.

As an employer, more and more, it’s important to take this topic seriously and be proactive about how you approach it with your team in order to best prevent it.

1. Create awareness of sexual harassment and discrimination

Getting everyone on the same page in terms of how to define sexual harassment and discrimination, along with the fact that it won’t be tolerated, as well as what’s acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the workplace is incredibly important.

Even as a small business, it’s important to have these expectations clearly outlined and ensure your employees are aware of where you stand on the issue as a business. Implementing a sexual harassment and discrimination policy within your business is a good step in the right direction to achieving this.

2. Educate your team

Making sure everyone understands what sexual harassment and discrimination is beyond the words on the pages of your sexual harassment policy will further encourage appropriate behaviour at work.

Holding info sessions or workshops to further explore the topic with your employees may seem like overkill initially, but is definitely an exercise worth doing. These sessions will give your employees an opportunity to ask questions and consolidate their understanding about what’s expected of them as well as when and how to stand up against and report any sexual harassment that might occur in the workplace.

There are a bunch of resources available to you as an employer to help educate your team including off-the-shelf online training courses, external HR services to develop tailored workshops and contacting legislative and expert bodies like the Human Rights Commission for more info.

3. Practice what you preach

Ideally it would be great if incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination never occurred at work but the reality is that you’ll come across it in some shape or form, whether it is something that’s considered as a harmless joke or something a lot more extreme and serious like physical violence. The most common thing that seems to go wrong when dealing with cases of sexual harassment is when incidents are either ignored or not dealt with appropriately. When employees make complaints relating to sexual harassment or discrimination, don’t just brush it off as if it’s not a big deal. The incident may seem like a small issue now but if it’s left to fester and not dealt with appropriately, it will definitely become a much bigger problem.

A recent sexual harassment case where the employee was awarded $700,000 in damages, made a strong point of the fact that the employer repeatedly ignored the employee’s complaints and made little to no effort to acknowledge and resolve the situation.

Different workplace cultures may have different tolerance levels when it comes to this topic but that’s a risky assumption to work off as there are clear and legal definitions of what constitutes sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act and whether a certain behaviour was ever intended to be unwelcome, offensive, humiliating or intimidating or not makes absolutely no difference.

As an employer you have a certain set of obligations and responsibilities when it comes to ensuring that your employees aren’t subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. If you haven’t paid attention to this topic before, now is as good a time as any.

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