Research by Safe Work Australia indicates that victims of harassment experience higher levels of emotional exhaustion, psychological distress and depression. They also incur lower levels of job satisfaction and work engagement and a greater desire to leave.
Yet unfortunately, barely a day goes by without the media reporting about an alleged incident. While the prevalence of the issue is undoubtedly horrifying, what is equally disturbing and disappointing is the way in which many organisations appear to have responded when presented by a complaint from an employee. Time and again we see organisations unwilling to tackle the issues, particularly when the potential perpetrator is one of their strongest performers from a quantitative perspective.
The reality is though turning a blind eye won’t make the situation go away and by saying nothing you are actually saying an incredible amount to both the perpetrator and their victim(s). In particular, that it’s ok to harass others and you don’t value the health and safety of all employees. It is incredibly important to appreciate that as an employer you have a responsibility to provide all employees with a safe place of work and ensure all employees are aware that harassment of any description is not ok and will not be tolerated. While a clear policy on the subject is an important step, it alone is not enough. As evidenced in the case of Richardson v Oracle Corporation Australia Pty Ltd and Tucker (2014), an employer may find themselves liable for substantial damages to an employee that has been sexually harassed if they are found to not have taken all reasonable steps to prevent the conduct.
To reduce the likelihood of harassment and mitigate your vicarious liability, consider these steps:
- Develop a Harassment and Discrimination policy that clearly articulates harassment is not tolerated and sexual harassment is against the law.
- Complement your policy with a grievance procedure that sets out how employees across all levels can confidentially lodge a complaint without risk of victimisation.
- Investigate all complaints that are brought to management’s attention immediately, regardless of how trivial they might seem to you personally. Unless you can confidently demonstrate that the complaint is vexatious, management has a responsibility to ensure a thorough and confidential investigation of the allegations is conducted.
Build into your induction process training on harassment, bullying and discrimination so that all employees can recognise what it looks like and what to do if they incur or witness such behaviour. Refresher training should be carried out ideally annually, or at a minimum every two years.
- Create a culture where all employees are encouraged to report harassment when it happens rather than enduring it and hoping that it will stop. Like most things, the earlier you can address a situation and nip it in the bud the less stressful for all involved.