Get on front foot with Respect@Work laws
In-house counsel has been urged to get up to speed with new employment laws so their organisation can deal with new and amended protections against sexual and sex-based harassment, sex discrimination, and hostile work environments on the ground of sex.
Ahead of the Corporate Counsel Summit 2023, Tim Perry, director of practical law Asia and emerging markets at Thomson Reuters, said that organisations must understand how to comply with the new Respect@Work laws ushered in by the Albanese government as an aspect of fulfilling their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) obligations.
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“One of the real challenges of meeting ESG obligations is that they’re so multifaceted,” he told Lawyers Weekly.
“The ‘social’ component of ESG is especially complex. It includes issues such as diversity and inclusion in the workplace and the composition of boards.
“Companies also have to consider their relationships with third parties or suppliers and what it means to be associated with counterparties who don’t score so well on D&I and workplace culture, or who may be engaging in practices that constitute modern slavery, or are implicated in human rights violations or conflict.”
Mr Perry urged Australian corporate counsel to focus on the wholesale reforms in employment laws, particularly the Respect@Work bill that became law earlier this year.
His comments preceded the Corporate Counsel Summit 2023, where he and a panel of speakers will outline the key ESG trends and developments in-house counsel should monitor in 2023 and beyond, the role they could play in ensuring their organisation comply with ESG reporting obligations, and how reporting could address the intersectionality of ESG.
Focus on creating a safe workplace
The Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Act 2022 — which passed through Parliament in November 2022 — asks employers to ensure that workplace practices prevent sexual and sex-based harassment and other forms of sex discrimination.
It places a positive duty on employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and victimisation as far as possible.
The legislation followed the landmark 2020 Respect@Work report by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins, and places the onus on employers to report sexual harassment rather than the victim.
The new laws also provide the Australian Human Rights Commission with new functions to assess and enforce compliance with this new requirement, including the capacity to give compliance notices to employers who are not meeting their obligations.
Mr Perry said that fostering a positive, safe work environment forms a part of an organisation’s ESG obligations.
“We know from the #MeToo movement that when companies don’t do well in this aspect of social responsibility, it can cause reputational damage. This has a knock-on effect on their financial performance as well,” he pointed out.
“But ESG is not just about risk but also opportunities.
“Inclusive and safe workplaces are happier and more productive.”
Taking actionable steps
As such, Mr Perry urged in-house counsel to think differently about how to approach these social issues.
“Often the discourse on ESG is very top-down, focusing on reporting and overarching frameworks,” he said.
“While it is vital that in-house counsel remain alert to these requirements, it’s equally important that they help their organisations tackle ESG issues from the bottom up, building ESG awareness into business-as-usual operations.”
He continued: “The Albanese government has been diligently implementing its pre-election policy commitment to reform the national workplace relations system. Respect@Work is just one aspect of this.
“There’s a lot of new law to digest, so seeking out resources that don’t just explain what the new law is, but also help lawyers work out the practical implications of the changes, will allow Australian in-house counsel to analyse risk, and advise their company accordingly.
“In part, this is about reviewing internal policies and procedures, including staff training, in light of the changes. But it also extends beyond this, for example, to the types of questions that need to be asked of counterparties when contracting or conducting due diligence of potential acquisition targets.”
According to the Respect@Work survey released in 2022, a third of Australians still experienced sexual harassment in the workplace — 41 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men — while the highest rates of sexual harassment are still young people, LGBTI people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people with disabilities.
It’s occurring face to face and online, and the harassment is still mostly perpetrated by men.
To hear more from Tim Perry about how in-house counsel can ensure that their organisation complies with their ESG obligations and be future-fit, come along to the Corporate Counsel Summit 2023.
It will be held on Thursday, 25 May, at Sofitel Wentworth Sydney.