Former Woolworths employee suing for sexual harassment

A former manager at a Sydney Woolworths is suing the supermarket giant for $1.3 million in damages, alleging she was sexually harassed by her former boss and as a result has developed a mental illness.

Alysha Wilkie, a former night duty manager at the Blacktown Woolworths, alleges the store’s former manager, Steven Clark, sexually harassed her by making lewd comments and eventually dragging her into his office where he stroked and gripped her arm, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

Wilkie says she now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, has attempted suicide and takes antidepressants.

The conduct is alleged to have taken place between February and May 2011. Wilkie first lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, but the parties were unable to reach an agreement in compulsory mediation sessions.

After the mediation sessions failed, Wilkie filed documents with the Federal Circuit Court.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported yesterday Clark had allegedly made suggestive comments to Wilkie including questions such as “been keeping your husband up late?” and asking if she’d “thrown her leg over the wrong way” when she was late to work one day.

Clark is also said to have leered at Wilkie’s bottom.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, photos tendered to the court on Wednesday taken by Wilkie shows bruising on her arm after she was allegedly dragged into Clark’s office.

The alleged incident was partially recorded and played in court where Clark can be seen approaching Wilkie from behind and pulling her into a room.

SmartCompany contacted Woolworths, but no comment was available.

Woolworths is also under scrutiny, alleged to have poorly handled Wilkie’s complaint. The Sydney Morning Herald reported Clark, who is no longer the manager of the Blacktown store, has since been promoted.

TressCox lawyers partner Rachel Drew told SmartCompany employers need to be aware they can be vicariously liable for sexual harassment.

“Employers need to be able to show they’ve taken reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment from occurring,” she says.

“At the bare minimum there must be a policy and that policy must be implemented by training the staff and by having a proper complaints management process.”

But Drew says even when an organisation does have a workplace behaviour policy, it doesn’t always prevent this type of misconduct from occurring.

“There is no strict liability on the employer if they can show they’ve taken reasonable steps to stop it happening, but there will be managers who fall through the cracks by either not attending training or not listening,” she says.

“It’s a matter for Woolworths to put up a defence and say it has trained its staff and it’s a matter for the individual.”

Drew says sexual harassment cases which are settled in court rarely attract awards in the millions, although they typically pay out more than discrimination cases.

“Sexual harassment does seem to attract a premium because there is a consciousness to the conduct and people should be aware of the behaviour and how it affects people,” she says.

Last year there were a number of high profile sexual harassment cases including two against fashion retailer Rivers’ former boss Philip Goodman.

“Women tend to have more severe reactions and often develop a psychiatric condition…but going to court she’s not likely to get $1.3 million. However good for her is the media pressure which will now be on Woolworths,” Drew says.

“It could be forced to enter into settlement and settle it for more money than they’d pay otherwise in court.”

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