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Why stamping out sexual harassment starts at the recruitment process

Following alarming reports showing the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the legal profession, a workplace specialist says hiring managers need to look at the recruitment process first if there’s any hope to eliminate the crisis.

user iconEmma Ryan and Naomi Neilson 07 May 2021 Big Law
Why stamping out sexual harassment starts at the recruitment process
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According to Maureen Kyne of Maureen Kyne & Associates, the road to eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace begins with the recruiting process.

“Employing staff with undesirable traits is more likely to wreak havoc and cause incidents in the workplace,” she said.

“Sexual harassment is often about power and entitlement, and workplaces need to get better at identifying personality traits that may contribute to sexual harassment.


“Identifying high risk staff will go some way towards weeding out bad hires.”

Ms Kyne said whilst so much thought goes into prospective employee’s skill set and resume, law firm heads need to give equal weight to a new staff member’s role in the culture of their organisation. 

“We have to re-evaluate how and why we hire people to be involved in our workplaces,” Ms Kyne said, noting that while workplace policies are all well and good, they’re clearly not fixing the problem and often exist more to protect the organisation than the staff

“We need to change the way we hire people and demonstrate that there’s a higher standard for being a sought-after employee and by extension a higher standard for being a member of the community,” she said.

As part of her push, Ms Kyne has outlined five ways she believes workplaces can change the way they hire employees to determine a better cultural fit:

1. Conduct risk assessments on potential recruits

“They should go as far as conducting a risk assessment of new recruits to gauge a better understanding of how new hires will behave and respond in their new work environment,” she said.

“Social media screening, interviews with referees, including school, university and past employers, as well as an in depth interview with the candidate is more effective at uncovering defaults in a personality and provide a better picture of the potential new employee.

“Referees provide vital information about a candidate’s previous workplace behaviour.”

2. Better education and training of recruitment staff

“The whole recruitment team must have a clear and shared understanding on what sexual harassment is, without the confusion. Clear rules will eliminate a lack of understanding as to what sexual harassment is,” she said.

“Everyone in the workplace needs to understand the types of behaviours that are unacceptable, and that begins at recruitment.

3. More investigative recruitment techniques

“Workplaces need to conduct more practical assessments of how a new recruit performs in a work environment, thus uncovering more of their personality, values and standards for personal behaviour,” she said.

“That is more likely to determine if someone is a cultural fit than a resume or references ever could.

4. Conduct a culture check

“Organisational culture is central to sexual harassment,” she said.

“Just as workplaces review their operational and financial success, leaders should regularly review and communicate their culture; ensure it remains relevant and current and thus enable the recruitment team to hire people who fit within it.

5. Fortnightly checks

“Throw out the traditional performance review and move to more frequent and focused conversations,” she said.

“Fortnightly check-ins are a more effective way of reinforcing desired behaviours, holding staff behaviour to account and managing workplace issues.

Ms Kyne said employing staff members with questionable behaviour can be very costly.

In conclusion, Ms Kyne said sexual harassment is a social problem that has become a work problem and changing the culture of sexual harassment must start long before a person enters the workforce.

“One-off incidents tend to become patterns of behaviour so regular check-ins and personality profiling will help staff be accountable for their actions,” she said.

Ms Kyne’s comments come after the South Australian government released disturbing findings from an independent review into sexual harassment in the state’s legal profession.

The findings showed more than 40 per cent of respondents had experienced sexual or discriminatory harassment in the legal profession, and one-third had experienced it more than once. The allegations ranged from sexually suggestive and unwelcome comments, mostly by more senior male practitioners, through to sexual assault.

The most common victims of sexual harassment were associates, followed by senior associates and clerks or interns. In terms of where the harassment took place, it was most common in law firms, followed by government offices or agencies, tribunals and barristers’ chambers. Often, it also occurred during work-related trips or events.

Following the release of the findings, the South Australia legal profession said it is committed to eradicating sexual harassment and shifting the culture of silence.

“The review confirmed what many of us already knew. Sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying are embedded in the culture of our profession and systemic drivers continue to perpetuate it,” Women Lawyers Association of South Australia (WLASA) commented.

WLASA said it was incumbent on all members to take responsibility for meaningful cultural change, adding that the significant number of responses to the report in such a short time frame “is indicative of the widespread nature of the problem”.

“This cannot be ignored and warrants immediate action,” it said.