Employers not living up to sexual harassment policies

A new report reveals nearly half of executives believe their workplace culture does not reflect their workplace policies on sexual harassment.


The DLA Phillips Fox report, titled The Serious Business of Sexual Harassment, surveyed almost 300 people including board members, executives, HR managers and employees.


According to the survey, 84% of respondents say their organisations have a policy in place defining appropriate and inappropriate workplace culture.


However, 43% say the culture in their organisation does not “sit consistently with its stated equal opportunity and diversity policy”.


Concerns over sexual harassment in the workplace have soared after the intense publicity of the David Jones sexual harassment case late last year.


Kristy Fraser-Kirk, a former David Jones publicist, sued the company and its former chief executive for sexual harassment and breach of contract, in an unprecedented claim for $37 million in punitive damages.


The case was settled before trial for a figure reported to be around $850,000.


According to the DLA Phillips Fox report, four out of 10 survey respondents say the lawsuit brought against David Jones has heightened sexual harassment concerns within their organisations.


DLA Phillips Fox partner Rick Catanzariti says the firm has experienced an increase in enquiries from organisations looking to evaluate and update their existing policies.


“Companies are concerned about becoming involved in high profile litigation, so many are looking to take preventative action in the form of compliance audits, contract reviews and internal training,” he says.


Only 63% of survey respondents could confirm their organisations provide training for staff around issues such as sexual harassment.


According to the report, policies need to be communicated and enforced consistently in order to be effective.


“Policies also need to be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure they reflect the current legal requirements and the employer’s values and culture,” it states.


The report reveals 87% of respondents are at least “moderately confident” managerial staff understand that an employer may be liable for sexual harassment committed by staff in the workplace.


“Under sexual harassment and sex discrimination laws, employers are liable for acts of sexual harassment committed by their employees unless they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent it from taking place. This is known as ‘vicarious liability’,” the report says.


“While there is no uniform standard expected of employers in taking all reasonable steps, at a minimum they would usually be expected to have in place an appropriate sexual harassment policy, which is effectively implemented, monitored and communicated to all employees, and to take appropriate action if sexual harassment does occur.”


“The obligation to prove that all reasonable steps were taken rests with the employer. Lack of awareness that the harassment was occurring is not in itself a defence.”


DLA Phillips Fox says employers need to consider the following:

  • Have you developed a detailed sexual harassment policy and procedures manual, and has that policy been properly implemented?
  • Do you provide regular training and information on sexual harassment to all staff and management?
  • Do your staff understand how they should respond if they become aware of an occurrence of sexual harassment?
  • Has your organisation adopted an adequate and appropriate communication strategy when they receive a complaint from an employee?
  • In the event of a complaint, will you conduct a thorough, balanced investigation based on appropriate evidence that is carefully weighed up


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