Sexual harassment complaints and bullying allegations – two serious issues that appear to have been mishandled by Channel 7 from an ethical, procedural and legal perspective.
It appears Channel 7 have shown us once again how complaints of sexual misconduct should not be handled. The dust had barely settled on the Amber Harrison scandal before a damning audio tape was released on ABC’s 7:30 Report yesterday. It captured the moment a young cadet – who had previously complained about sexual harassment from an older, male reporter – was told to get her things and leave the building.
The cadet, Amy Taeuber was suspended from duty by a senior HR executive. As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, she was “handed a list of written allegations claiming she was directly involved in two “offending” sites, including a Facebook page dedicated to My Kitchen Rules memes”. According to Seven, the memes “contained disparaging and offensive comments directed towards Seven, its employees and contestants”.
The Sydney Morning Herald goes on to say that “in the meeting, Amy was also accused of bullying a fellow cadet who was not named.”
There are similarities with the case brought against Harrison, who was accused of financial fraud after making a complaint about CEO Tim Worner’s conduct.
Although Channel 7 have denied any wrongdoing, if the investigation into Taeuber was retaliatory, their message seems to be loud and clear: Do not even attempt to go after senior male staff. And don’t expect HR to support you, if you do.
The initial report suggests that the cadet Taeuber was accused of bullying was a man named Peter Fegan. This comes from Kate Taueuber, Amy’s sister, who said Fegan is still a friend and didn’t know he was on the document. In her telling, Fegan let HR know he didn’t understand why his name was involved, and said he had never made any complaints about Amy.
Perhaps the most incendiary part of the original report is the suggestion that what happened to Taueuber was part of a pattern. Former Channel 7 HR staff told the ABC that “trawling through emails to construct a misleading case was something the former employees regularly did to get rid of staff and something they said they felt enormously guilty about.”
Regardless of how the case against Taueuber was built, the audio from the meeting still seems to demonstrate a troubling approach to HR.
AHRI Chairman Peter Wilson provides some insight: “The two principles HR needs to manage when negotiating with a co-worker about an issue that might be employment threatening are – ‘no bias’ and ‘procedural fairness or natural justice’. On the published audio in this case – both principles appear to have been infringed.
“In cases of complaints like this, conversations are required with HR to clarify the context and prior events which are the subject of the complaint, and to afford the plaintiff co-worker with procedural fairness, such as access to a support person to be present when meeting with HR. All these issues must be dealt with fully, fairly and dispassionately before employment termination is either considered or acted upon.”
Channel 7 appear to have got it so wrong. It certainly seems they’ve fallen far short of best practice in terms of handling the accusations against Taeuber. And the allegation that they launched a retaliatory investigation is especially serious.
The Australian Human Right Commission says organisations’ are legally obligated to have an internal procedure for dealing with sexual harassment complaints supported by senior management and HR, as well as take remedial action when it occurs. Workplace misconduct investigator Phil O’Brien says a trusted mechanism should be in place to manage complaints – which will only be taken seriously by employees if action is taken.
If indeed a retaliatory investigation was conducted into Taeuber’s behaviour, it’s very troubling. The Australian Human Right Commission receives around 2388 complaints per year regarding anti-discrimination law, around 20 per cent (453) of which fall under the Sexual Discrimination Act 1984.
This is what should be happening. When an allegation of sexual harassment has been made, the Sex Discrimination Act says:
- The complaints should be addressed in a fair, timely and confidential manner by trained personnel;
- Ensure that the complainant is not victimised or disadvantaged for making the complaint, with their well-being reviewed regularly. Acting otherwise can be considered adverse action.
Whether or not allegations of bullying hold weight, you need to follow certain legally required steps in workplace investigations. As previously outlined by HRM, complainants and witnesses need to be thoroughly interviewed, with the respondent then required to be informed of this evidence, as per Section 387(b) of the Fair Work Act. In accordance with section(c), the accused party should then be allowed to respond before a finding has been made.
Since this article was first published, Channel 7 issued a statement on the original 7:30 Report story (source: ABC News).
“The program broadcast on 7.30 on Monday night … was neither accurate nor balanced,” the statement read.
“Amy was not sacked because she made a complaint.
“The termination of employment was made pursuant to a breach of contract. This did not occur during the recorded conversation broadcast by the ABC last night, but many weeks afterwards following meetings and discussions when the former employee was represented by two successive firms of lawyers and the union.
“There is no doubt the initial meeting could have been handled better.”
*A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the timing of the suspension meeting as happening “days after” the initial sexual harassment complaint. Other elements of the original report have been changed for clarity, and to adjust to new information as it has come out.
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