HR warning as IBM faces $1.1m sexual harassment case

Businesses have been urged to build a HR infrastructure, regardless of their size, following the lodging of a major sexual harassment claim by an IBM employee.


The IBM Melbourne female sales consultant is suing the company for $1.1 million after it allegedly failed to act on her repeated complaints of serious sexual harassment and bullying.


Compensation law firm Maurice Blackburn is lodging a claim against IBM in the Australian Human Rights Commission.


Maurice Blackburn special counsel Siobhan Keating said in a statement that the woman, now in her 40s, endured almost two years of sexual harassment, unlawful discrimination and bullying.


If the woman is awarded the full amount, it could be the biggest sexual harassment payout in Australian history.


Keating said the allegations included that a senior male colleague rubbed himself against the woman and made comments such as, “If you get your breasts out, you will get more sales”.


He had also allegedly made sexual remarks in front of her during Christmas events, and had allegedly placed his hand on her leg and up her dress several times at an evening function.


It’s alleged the man also bullied the woman, yelling abuse and calling her “stupid”, and made unreasonable work demands.


The allegations also include him calling her late at night, threatening and intimidating her, including allegedly telling her: “I’m watching your every step.”


Despite complaining to four managers, no action was taken for 18 months, and only after the woman attempted suicide was the perpetrator forced to resign in mid 2009.


Keating said IBM’s inaction is impossible to understand.


“The attitude of IBM in the face of these serious allegations, including repeatedly turning a blind eye, urging our client not to make a formal complaint, and not wanting to be told of details, exacerbated the damage to our client’s career and health and pushed our client to the edge,” she said.


“Letting these issues fester and continue to build up has destroyed the life of our client. This kind of corporate inaction, and trying to sweep the issues under the carpet, is unacceptable.”


Andrew Douglas, principal at Macpherson + Kelley Lawyers, says it can be hard for small businesses to address these claims because they’re less inclined to have a HR infrastructure in place.


Douglas says there are three things that all businesses must implement, regardless of their size:

  1. Whether or not you have a HR person, develop a HR infrastructure and ensure it is competency-based.
  2. Appoint a “red button” person outside of the organisation as a go-to for employees to field their complaints.
  3. As the business owner, have an absolute commitment to act upon any complaint that comes up, regardless of its severity, by implementing the aforementioned measures.

Douglas says sexual harassment and bullying claims aren’t prevalent in a particular business demographic, but says more people are beginning to understand that they don’t have to tolerate bad behaviour.


“Small organisations desperately need a red button person so that employees have a reference point for any complaints they may have,” he says.


“If employees have to voice those concerns internally, they may feel there’s a spot on their forehead forever… You need a contact person to act as an external resource in this regard.”


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