It is almost 30 years since the Sex Discrimination Act was enacted. Yet recent high-profile incidents involving David Jones and Star City Casino show that there are still sexual harassment hothouses in the Australian workplace.
Unfortunately the negative publicity surrounding such cases has not had a significant deterrent effect. Indeed, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner maintains that sexual harassment is still a major workplace issue for women. In many workplaces sexual harassment is the norm and goes unchecked. To compound these problems, those who do speak up are often victimised.
So what is going wrong? Why does the Australian workplace produce so many sexual harassment hothouses?
Acquiescence, confusion about what constitutes sexual harassment and an inability to conceptualise this conduct are all part of the problem. A spokesperson for a current awareness campaign targeted at first-year university students maintains that many young women are confused about what constitutes sexual harassment and don’t know how, or where, to seek redress. If they do recognise this inappropriate behaviour, they believe it is the workplace norm and they have to put up with it. They fear reprisal if they complain — being labelled ‘wowsers’ or worse still, losing their jobs.
To compound the problem, difficulties in conceptualising this poor conduct can either hinder a person from making a complaint or, if they do complain, they may not be able to properly describe the conduct to those investigating it, lessening its probative value.
These problems highlight the need for employers to understand the risks present in their unique work environment and to raise awareness about sexual harassment issues. For those who have been remiss in this area, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Publicly available documents such as the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) 2011 report on its cultural review of the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) provide helpful tools and templates.
An effective approach should involve a dual attack:
1. Conduct regular risk assessments
Employers need to properly assess the risks of this conduct in their workplace. Generally, this requires an understanding of their organisational culture. The methodology followed by the AHRC in its cultural review of ADFA sets a high watermark in the type of procedures that could be undertaken as part of this assessment. Mirroring the AHRC’s methodology may not be cost effective.
However, its report provides some useful examples of processes to assess organisational culture, including reviewing policies and procedures on gender and diversity issues, interviewing key personnel, conducting employee workshops and focus groups with different stakeholder groups, considering written submissions and conducting employee surveys to determine levels and frequency of unacceptable behaviour. Ideally these risk assessments should be conducted on a regular basis.
2. Targeted awareness training
The AHRC’s report is a useful reference tool for designing training to help conceptualise sexual harassment and explain avenues of redress. For example, the Unacceptable Behaviour Survey conducted as part of its review gives some helpful insights into AHRC’s typology of inappropriate behaviour directed at women and its opinion on the degree of seriousness of particular types of conduct.
The survey split gender and sex-related harassment questions into five categories:
- Sexist behaviours.
- Unwanted sexual attention/seduction.
- Sexual bribery/ threat.
- Sexual assault.
- Crude/offensive behaviours.
Interestingly the AHRC introduced a new concept of “low level” sexual harassment, such as using sexualised language and sexist behaviours. As an example, it reported that male cadets often commodified women by referring to then as “game”. The AHRC’s categorisation implies that there is a spectrum of behaviour constituting sexual harassment, varying in the degree of seriousness, from inappropriate comments or a highly sexualised work environment through to serious sexual abuse or criminal sexual assault.
Employers are at risk if they fail to hose down sexual harassment in their workplaces. The negative publicity incumbent with cases involving serious incidents or work cultures where low-level sexual harassment is tolerated can cause severe adverse reputational damage and plummeting employee morale. However, by following some of the methodology and typology used in the report, workplaces can assess their risks and work culture and develop targeted awareness training aimed at helping employees recognise and conceptualise incidents of sexual harassment and allow them to understand their avenues of redress.