Despite 29 years of legislation, sexual harassment remains a problem in Australian workplaces and presents a considerable risk to business. So why is it still prevalent? Unfortunately, there are some people in our community who do not embrace community or corporate values.
In the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), sexual harassment is defined as “unwelcome or unwanted sexual behaviour which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated where that reaction is reasonable in the circumstance”
A national telephone survey conducted in 2012 by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 33 per cent of females and 9 per cent of males had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace at some time, compared with 28 per cent of females and 7 per cent of males in 2003. A 2008 survey found a lack of understanding as to what sexual harassment is.
Around one in five (22 per cent) respondents who said they had not experienced ‘sexual harassment’ then went on to report having experienced it. Only 16 per cent of those who have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years made a complaint, compared with 32 per cent in 2003.
To better understand the landscape, Risk to Business conducted a large and independent national survey of workplace behaviours in December 2011. Our research was designed to capture the stories about the experiences of everyday Australians in work. Having recorded the responses of 5000 Australians with regards to sexual harassment the survey results were fascinating.
In the “Nett Behaviour Scores” of our survey, 76 per cent of participants felt the behaviour was dysfunctional at their workplace. Surprisingly, we learnt that there still exists a very high incidence of sexual harassment, with 30 per cent of respondents having experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months. This raises the question: Why haven’t we seen a marked improvement in the reduction of sexual discrimination in Australian workplaces?
The majority of incidents commented on in our survey were not reported and often involved a senior manager and colleagues at peer level. This calls into question the previously held view that there is a power differential at work between people. In fact, the majority of respondents shared that in their experience the perpetrator was a peer, and sometimes the behaviour was openly displayed in front of other people.
The other startling issue we identified was around what actions organisations took in response to complaints that were handled internally. Forty-four per cent of respondents said that their organisation did nothing or turned a blind eye to their issue. More than half of the people reporting incidents had a significant emotional wellbeing issue affecting them as a result of their experience, and 76 per cent spent between one and 10 days off work.
Each complaint of workplace behaviour that is reported and managed internally will cost an organisation $50,000 (at least) in HR and management response, lost productivity, loss of trust and absenteeism and at least twice as much in legal costs and damages if handled externally. Not to mention the damage done to the company’s image.
Two types of employer
As I see it, there are two types of employer: the ‘Gambler’ and the ‘Visionary’. Gamblers know what risks they face and choose to ignore it. Visionaries are intentional about what a workplace culture means to them and how employee engagement brings productivity and better outcomes.
Gamblers tend to disregard the cost of negligence or recklessness around corporate governance strategies. Visionaries know that an organisational culture where people feel safe to make complaints internally is a positive indicator of employee health and safety.
Our survey has more to reveal as we unpack the data – for example, general poor behaviour and workplace bullying were reported in significant numbers in Australia – but the message from our research is clear: sexual harassment still happens and our work communities need to be vigilant in ensuring they have a solid understanding of what sexual harassment is.
Stuart King is an equal opportunity and workplace conflict specialist. To discover more on the research,