Firms should be taking proactive steps to address sexual harassment
Legal workplaces should be taking proactive steps to address sexual harassment in a bid to create a culture that is supportive of victims, rather than wait until after a situation has occurred to rush in investigation and management processes.
With sexual harassment dominating the legal headlines amid revelations former justice Dyson Heydon targeted six judge’s associates, employers should be considering their next steps in addressing this conduct now rather than after it becomes an issue.
Monash Business School legal researchers and associate professors Dominique Allen and Adriana Orifici have warned that there are barriers in the legal system that prevents women from choosing to make complaints if they experience sexual harassment. This could be attributed to the entire profession, but it could also be linked to the culture of a firm.
“It shouldn’t be up to the woman who has been sexually harassed, whose career may be left in tatters, to take action on behalf of every other woman in the workplace,” said Associate Professor Allen. “Those who are brave enough to come forward and report sexual harassment must be supported by their workplaces and legal system.”
Alongside this, Ms Allen said there needs to be a regulator that can call attention to all compliance holes if employers do not take steps to prevent future incidents. She added equality agencies and the Fair Work Ombudsman are not currently certified to do so.
The researchers said allegations against Mr Heydon highlighted the reasons why most women might not raise the issue of sexual harassment at work. This includes a power imbalance between the perpetrator and the woman, a pronounced hierarchical structure in the workplace, lack of workplace process and fear of being labelled a troublemaker.
Ms Orifici said people who experienced sexual harassment are more likely to approach assistance if there are transparent and robust processes in place.
“The workplace investigation should not be used to minimise, to silence or to diminish a person’s complaint but instead needs to be a tool used to address the issue and to eliminate the risk of future unacceptable conduct,” Ms Orifici explained.
“The events of last week reinforce that all workplaces not only need to have a suitable policy about sexual harassment that sets out procedures for responding to complaints, but also has policies and practices that instil a culture that seeks to proactively prevent sexual harassment from occurring in the first place.”
To complicate matters further, the researchers said COVID-19 has created conditions that make it harder for businesses to detect inappropriate behaviour and investigations are being impeded when staff are working remotely.
“Remote working arrangements make employers more reliant on affected employees coming forward with complaints to detect potential misconduct,” Ms Orifici said.
Prior to the pandemic, employers faced significant challenges in monitoring employee conduct but the advent and excessive use of virtual communication platforms may only exacerbate permeable boundaries between employees’ work and private lines.
“It is vital that employers invest time in promoting a workplace culture – for example, through training, targeted communications, policies and procedures, which reinforces expectations regarding employee behaviours to minimise the chances of unsuitable behaviour occurring,” Ms Orifici said.