The #MeToo movement may herald a new respect in workplace relationships. AHRI chairman Peter Wilson investigates.
In a rare bipartisan gesture, the US Congress recently passed bills banning sexual relationships between federal lawmakers and staff members who report to them. In addition, as reported by Huffington Post, the bills require House members who agree to sexual harassment settlements to pay the cost themselves rather than the taxpayer.
At the same time as the US Congress was enacting this legislation, the Australian public was subject to the spectacle of the then Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, defending his relationship with staff member Vikki Campion. The relationship was consensual and so arguably no one’s business other than the couple’s, but it spiralled into semi-related allegations of preferential access to high-paying jobs for Campion, free rent paid by a donor, the resignation of the DPM’s chief of staff over the matter, questionable property transactions, and the final straw, a separate harassment allegation from a Western Australia woman against the DPM.
Although there was no sexual harassment allegation relating to the affair, eventually the Prime Minister intervened to announce a ban on ministers engaging in sexual relationships with their staff. Punishment for offenders will be dismissal.
The beginning of the end
Though it became immediately clear that the PM was not able to dismiss Joyce because he was not from the same political party, the benchmark has now been set from the top. This flurry of activity started in earnest on 5 October last year when The New York Times published a story setting out in detail decades of sexual harassment allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein. The allegations gave rise to the #MeToo movement which encouraged women damaged by harassment, and especially sexual harassment in the workplace, to find their voice. A great many have done so, and they include Australian women who have spoken out about working under Don Burke on the television program Burke’s Backyard, fellow actors working with Craig McLachlan on The Rocky Horror Show, and fellow councillors working with Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle, to name a few.
Clearly the #MeToo movement has enabled victims of sexual harassment in workplaces to find their voice, many of them saying that the Weinstein case prompted them to do so as a way to speak up for themselves, to redress past wrongs, and to prevent other women undergoing the workplace trauma and career stagnation that they report.
The #MeToo revelations are reminders of pre-Weinstein Australian cases such as the QBE chief executive’s loss of a $550k bonus, the Seven West Worner-Harrison scandal, and the Australian Football League’s dismissal of two executives over staff relationships. Each of those cases involved consensual workplace affairs, yet careers and reputations suffered considerable collateral damage. And they are all potential problem areas for HR practitioners caught in crossfire as the scandals break into the public domain.
One of the more damaging cases for the perception of HR in Australia was the harassment allegation involving Channel 7 reporter Amy Taeuber, who took the extra step of covertly recording the HR manager engaging in what appeared to be an overly hasty silencing and dismissal of the accuser.
Revelations come to light
A key refrain of many cases is that junior parties who complain about being harassed or assaulted at work are too often not taken seriously, moved aside or moved out, while no action is taken against the more senior accused person. A case in point was that of former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, who was informed by HR that no one else had ever complained about the behaviour of the manager she accused, only to later discover that multiple complaints had been made, none of which were acted on.
Uber let Fowler go – a fate Tamara Holder experienced at Fox News following a financial settlement she agreed to after reporting an outrageous sexual assault by an executive. Holder made the point that shareholders at companies like Fox are seeing many millions of dollars being squandered on corporate decisions to push for settlements with accusers more often than not removed from their positions, silenced with confidentiality clauses and stranded with limited job opportunities.
Mixed in with the momentum generated by the #MeToo movement were notes of caution coming from quarters as far removed from each other as French movie actor Catherine Deneuve and academic Germaine Greer, both of whom warned against over-reaction and a new puritanism.
From the HR perspective, that caution is a reminder that any allegation of workplace harassment needs to be investigated on its merits and without fear or favour regardless of the respective seniority of the parties. Apart from showing no bias and respecting the principles of natural justice, weighing up the merits of, and reporting back confidentially on, an allegation are vital parts of the HR process. As are appropriate follow-up actions.
If there’s a silver lining to the Weinstein story, it could be that it has provided a sobering lesson that will result in greater respect being displayed in workplaces to employees at all levels.