Corporate Australia mimics Canberra’s response to sexual harassment claims, with employers urged to drop the “tone deaf approach”

Mia Pantechis

Mia Pantechis is a principal with Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. Source: Women's Agenda.

In recent weeks, there has been an outpouring of outrage as a toxic workplace culture at Federal Parliament has been exposed and sexual harassment claims have been criticised, highlighting a workplace culture that is hostile towards women and unsafe.

Despite this, we’ve seen repeated missteps in the Government’s handling of these issues and in its treatment of victims. We’ve seen deflection when it comes to accountability. We’ve seen attempts to shift blame. We’ve seen complaints being weaponised. We’ve seen alleged perpetrators being given more support and empathy than the brave women who have spoken out and risked their careers.

And if that wasn’t enough to cause outrage, the impact this is having on corporate Australia’s attitude towards sexual harassment in workplaces will.

As an employment lawyer, I am presently acting for numerous victims of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, Canberra’s response is being mimicked by employers in defending these claims.

In what can only be described as a tone-deaf approach given the current climate and sentiment of the public, I have noticed the same tactics being adopted by employers and in a more aggressive way than in the past.

Complaints are not treated seriously. Where investigations are conducted, they are riddled with flaws and bias. Victim-blaming is often used when responding to complaints. Perpetrators are protected. Accountability is rejected based on misconceived notions that the harassment did not occur in circumstances that are sufficiently connected to the employment, despite it taking place between employees and in situations that arose by reason of the employment only.

And while such tactics are not new, it seems employers are more emboldened to pursue these tactics, and are truly testing the resolve of victims to take sexual harassment matters to court.

What happens next? Well, courts and tribunals have demonstrated that they are more than willing to call out aggravating and intimidating tactics deployed in the defence of sexual harassment matters.

In a case before the Federal Circuit Court in 2019, the perpetrator made veiled threats to the victim regarding her ongoing employment. He told lies during the proceedings, used personal information for the ‘sole purpose of blackening’ the victim’s name and referred to her as ‘flirty and coquettish’. The court was scathing of this approach and awarded significant aggravated damages of $50,000, in addition to other compensation for loss and damage.

Similarly, in a case before the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal in 2020, aggravated damages were awarded because the perpetrator threatened defamation action in a letter to the victim as an intimidatory tactic to silence her.

So, the courts have sent a clear message that the consequences of these tactics are serious and will not be tolerated. Like the government, it’s time for corporate Australia to start listening and to start engaging with victims of sexual harassment in a more supportive and constructive way.

Better still, rather than imitating Canberra’s approach, corporate Australia should tackle what is a serious safety issue plaguing workplaces, and stamp out sexual harassment before it happens by addressing the systemic and culture drivers of sexual harassment within workplaces.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published by Women’s Agenda.

If you or someone you know is affected by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636.

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