Businesses need to have effective policies in place to handle complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination, and preferably prevent them from happening in the first place, according to Employer Advisors.
The warning comes as a number of companies have had to pay thousands of dollars in compensation to employees who have been victims of either sexual harassment or some form of unlawful discrimination.
“Too many businesses think, ‘oh that sort of thing would never happen here’, or, ‘all of our staff get along’, but quite frankly, they are wrong and they are exposing themselves to enormous risk of expensive compensation claims,” said Miles Heffernan from Employer Advisors.
“Small businesses are particularly vulnerable, because they don’t have expensive HR departments, and often they are family businesses that have never had any professional training in the area.”
Sexual harassment is any form of unwanted, uninvited or unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.
Discrimination is when someone is treated less favourably because of a particular attribute, which can include their sex, race, religion, sexuality, gender or pregnancy status, along with many others.
Employer Advisors has some tips for businesses to avoid claims of sexual harassment or discrimination, but first, let’s consider two recent case studies:
Case study one: ‘Dick in the dust’
A small painting company in regional Queensland was forced to pay $12,500 to an employee who made a claim for sexual harassment and sexuality discrimination.
Two of his colleagues had taunted him about his perceived sexuality, before scribbling in two dusty windows, “Ben loves dick” along with a crude drawing of a penis, suggesting that he was gay.
The graffiti was then sent as pictures to the employee’s phone.
Mr Heffernan said the company was liable for the actions of its workers, and had to pay the compensation.
“It can be as basic as some juvenile graffiti drawn into dust on a window, or something that someone considers is ‘just a joke’ that can cost you thousands,” he said.
“The business involved in this case had no policies or formal training in place, and it cost them in the end.”
Case study two: ‘Black Guy Repellent’
In the second case, a car detailer of Maori background who worked at a Fraser Coast small business suffered ongoing taunts about the colour of his skin, including being called a “black c**t” and a “black bastard”.
Then a colleague left him a can of sunscreen that was covered in gold tape with the words “BLACK GUY REPLLENT – caution! only use on blacks” written on it.
The employee left work that afternoon, and hasn’t been able to work since.
Mr Heffernan said this was one of the most blatant cases of race discrimination he had ever seen.
“Once again this was a relatively small business, and they admitted they had no formal training in place for staff, and absolutely no policies surrounding harassment or discrimination – they didn’t think they needed it – but they were wrong,” he said.
The case is currently before the Anti-Discrimination Commission of Queensland, and is expected to cost the businesses tens of thousands of dollars in compensation.
To read more about the case, click here.
As an employer, you have certain obligations and responsibilities to ensure your employees aren’t subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
Here are some tips from Employer Advisors:
Implementing a sexual harassment and discrimination policy within your business should make it clear to staff what is expected of them, and will also let them know how the business will handle any complaints if they arise.
You should ensure all employees have been made aware of the policy.
Educate your staff
A policy on its own is not enough – you should also make sure that everyone in the business understands what sexual harassment and discrimination is.
A good way to do this is to hold regular information sessions or workshops.
You can find information online to help you facilitate this, or you can engage the services of a professional industrial relations firm like Employer Advisors.
Take complaints seriously
If you receive a complaint of sexual harassment or discrimination, you need to consider it a serious issue – never just brush it off and hope that it will go away.
Depending on the circumstances, you should immediately investigate the matter, keeping in mind procedural fairness and maintaining people’s confidentiality.
If necessary, you can engage the services of a company like Employer Advisors who can conduct an external or independent investigation, and then provide your business with a comprehensive report, and advice on how to handle the matter.
Set a good example
Finally, if you are running a business, or you are a manager or supervisor, you should practice what you preach.
While different workplaces have different cultures, you should always set a good example by never engaging in jokes or behaviour that could be considered sexual harassment or discrimination.
“If you put in place a good clear policy, and you make sure your staff are well trained, and that you always take complaints seriously, you will minimise the chances of having to defend an expensive claim,” Mr Heffernan said.
To read about the case of a farmhand awarded $30,000 after being sexually harassed, click here.
To read about the case of a cafe worker awarded $20,000 after her boss sent her a sex toy, click here.
If your business needs help with sexual harassment or discrimination matters, we can help. Please call our friendly staff at Employer Advisors on 1300 853 837 for expert and confidential advice about your situation.
For the latest workplace news, including information about sexual harassment and discrimination, please follow our main Industrial Relations Claims page on Facebook.