Since the investigation into film producer Harvey Weinstein’s conduct helped spark the #MeToo Movement, sexual harassment in the workplace has been in the spotlight more than ever before.
In Australia, high-profile cases have been reported involving QBE, McDonalds and AMP, where senior figures lost their positions following complaints from female employees.
Despite the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread working from home arrangements this year, sexual harassment claims in Australia have not slowed down. If anything, the opposite seems true.
The Australian state hit hardest by COVID-19, Victoria, has seen one of the biggest increases in sexual harassment complaints, with cases up six per cent in the past year.
Law firms have suggested that because many employees are not in their standard workplace, victims won’t be in the physical presence of their harasser and will feel more comfortable coming forward.
Consequently, workers with historic experiences are now more likely to report complaints.
The WFH environment has increased the likelihood of harassment occurring in the virtual space, such as social media platforms.
The first step is building a culture that identifies appropriate behaviour and values people being able to speak up, followed by prompt and careful resolutions to allegations.
In particular, organisations must be proactive in having clear processes in place to handle complaints. This is important because there are laws requiring employers to take preventative action against sexual harassment.
Employers should also maintain regular communication with their employees and always take any reporting of inappropriate behaviour as a serious concern.
This doesn’t mean assuming guilt, but it does mean swiftly and comprehensively investigating complaints to obtain an accurate assessment of the incident.
In fact, the Sex Discrimination Act makes employers liable unless they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment taking place.