What’s Been Happening in Australia in Relation to Sexual Harassment, Discrimination and Bullying from 27 November 2023 – 3 December 2023

Is Working from Home and Flexibility Dying Out?

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) recently dealt with a case against an Adelaide man who wanted to work full-time from home. The case has occurred in light of a number of large corporations (such as Commonwealth Bank, NAB and IBM) who have ordered their employees back into the office. In the case, the Fair Work Commission upheld the employer’s decision to refuse an employee’s application to work solely from home. The Commission ruled against the employee, who had applied for flexible working on the grounds of having to care for his child every second week and for suffering from inflammatory bowel disease. Commissioner Platt ruled that Maxxia’s grounds for refusing Mr Charles Gregory’s request to work exclusively from home were “based on reasonable business grounds”. Luke Giribon, principal of Calvados + Woolf, stated that “these considerations by the FWC appear to transcend the mere arguments as to the meaning of disability and/or inconvenience but go to the essence of productivity and the desirability to have employees attend and participate in the work and office environment”. Wallmans Lawyers partner Michael Kay warned that “employees can (and no doubt will) continue to request flexible working, and each request must be considered on a case-by-case basis”.

Intellectual Property Lawyer Dismissed for Browsing Personal Websites

The Fair Work Commission recently awarded compensation to an intellectual property lawyer who was unfairly dismissed for browsing personal websites during a period where he said he was too busy to attend to a client’s patent application. In November this year, Commissioner Alana Matheson found that William Ellis was unfairly dismissed and awarded him $3,115 in compensation. The firm submitted that Mr Ellis had “wasted” 7.32 hours over four days by personal browsing. The worker alleged that the browsing had not been raised with him prior to his dismissal. Commissioner Matheson found that Mr Ellis’ browsing history could not be considered serious misconduct. She said that “I do not consider the browsing history to be enough in itself to establish serious misconduct, particularly in the modern, digitally connected era where employees may sporadically access the internet for both work related and personal purposes across their working day.” The Commissioner found that, while Mr Ellis’ response to the performance concerns of the law firm, he was not given valid notice of the reason for his termination as the letter stated, “dishonest conduct during disciplinary process”.

Western Australian Government Apologises to Indigenous People for Decades of Workplace Discrimination

The Western Australian Government has this week issued a formal apology on behalf of the state to Aboriginal people who have worked for little or no pay. The apology has occurred due to a settled class action, which was brought on behalf of Aboriginal people who were subject to discriminatory legislation and practices, as well as “stolen wages”. Premier Roger Cook stated that legislation introduced in the past was “supposed to protect Aboriginal people but instead resulted in hardship and exploitation.” He said that “Aboriginal men, women and children worked hard and made enormous contributions to the economic development of this State,” however “they received only a fraction of their worth.” Mr Cook said that the laws and policies “caused great harm and disadvantage”. Further, he said that “for their family members who remain, we are sorry for the hurt and loss that your loved ones suffered”.

Brittany Higgins Gives Evidence in Defamation Trial

Brittany Higgins has provided graphic evidence this week in relation to her alleged rape at Parliament House in 2019. Ms Higgins took to the witness stand as part of a defamation action commenced by Bruce Lehrmann against Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson. Mr Lehrmann has consistently maintained his innocence and no findings have been made against him. Mr Lehrmann’s trial was abandoned last year due to juror misconduct. In her evidence, Ms Higgins said that that she did not recall speaking in detail to the security officers about why they had gone to Parliament House that night. Ms Higgins stated that she last remembered sitting on a ledge overlooking the prime minister’s courtyard before being woken up on the couch in Senator Reynold’s private office. Ms Higgins gave evidence in relation to the alleged rape, stating that “my head was in the back corner of the couch, he was on top of me, his arms were over the top of the couch.” She said that “he was having sex with me at that point in time, and that was what I first woke up to.” Ms Higgins said that she had refused consent “on a loop,” stating that “I don’t know how many times I said it”. Following the alleged rape, Ms Higgins said that “I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone, it had just happened, I was still in shock.” She said that “I didn’t leave the house all weekend, I only emerged when I had to go to work on the Monday.” Further, Ms Higgins said that Mr Lehrmann was “handsy” with her at the nightclub prior to the alleged rape. She said that “I felt like an equal and I appreciated that, it felt like we were peers almost”. However, Ms Higgins stated “I remember him having his arm around my shoulder, I remember him touching me” and that “I didn’t want it, but I was tolerating it”.

Bruce Lehrmann Confesses Cocaine Usage

Bruce Lehrmann has admitted to using cocaine on the night he learned that he was the subject of sexual assault allegations. Mr Lehrmann said he “spiralled” after he had watched The Project Interview involving Brittany Higgins. The Court heard that Mr Lehrmann had watched Ms Higgins’ interview from his lawyer’s office prior to arranging to meet up with friends. Mr Lehrmann said that he was “in a bad place” after viewing the interview. Network Ten’s barrister Dr Matt Collins SC read out text messages to the court on Monday, stating that “the next message you were telling him to bring something with him… Was that because you decided to spend some time that night with friends and that substance”. Mr Lehrmann has sued Network 10 and journalist Lisa Wilkinson for defamation in relation to their reporting of sexual assault allegations made by former staffer Brittany Higgins on The Project in 2021. Mr Lehrmann has denied sexually assaulting Ms Higgins and no findings have been made against him.

Former Officer Launches Legal Action Against Department of Justice Alleging Sexual Harassment and Discrimination

A former prison officer at Bunbury Prison has commenced legal action against the Department of Justice, alleging sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and disability discrimination. Ms Bronwyn Hendry has alleged that she was subject to a range of behaviours at work which involved “sexual remarks, physical advances, exposure to sexually explicit images, stalking, and threats to her safety if she reported incidents.” Superintendent Kerri Bishop has been accused of not properly handling Ms Hendry’s complaints and being negligent in her management of the alleged offenders and workplace policies. The court documents allege that “[Superintendent Bishop] did not offer me, advise me of any reporting options, psychological support services, and was negligent in addressing the officers engaging in these behaviours.” Additionally, Ms Hendry has said that the incidents led to the deterioration of her mental health. Ms Hendry has alleged disability discrimination and accused the department and staff of being negligent in their handling of her mental health and redeployment to Casuarina Prison, which was 200 kilometres from her hometown, Donnybrook. The case follows one year after WorkSafe commenced an ongoing investigation into inappropriate behaviour at the prison.

Head Chef of Max’s Restaurant in Victoria Pleads Guilty to Workplace Bullying

The former head chef of a popular restaurant in Red Hill (Max’s Restaurant) has pleaded guilty to workplace bullying. Charles Yates faced Frankston Magistrates Court on Wednesday this week on workplace bullying charges, through a prosecution initiated b WorkSafe. Mr Yates, as well as the restaurant’s owner, Ideal Catering Services, pleaded guilty. The Court heard that Mr Yates forced an apprentice to wear a plastic bag on his head with eye holes cut out and continuously subjected them to offensive language and behaviour. In another instance, Mr Yates told an apprentice to drink boiling oil and told another to slit their wrists. Other allegations included Mr Yates throwing things at the apprentices, hitting them on the head with cabbage leaves, and calling them words to the effect of “spazz”, “c***face” and “spunkbubble”. The bullying led to the resignation of one apprentice in May 2021 and another taking sick leave before quitting. Mr Yates is additionally facing one charge of failing to ensure proper care of other employees. Max’s Restaurant faced three charges of failing to provide a safe working environment and not providing appropriate training and supervision. The magistrate has adjourned the matter to deliberate on sentencing.

ABC Staff Allegedly Groped by Senior Journalist at Christmas Party in Brisbane

An ABC senior journalist and producer allegedly groped a female colleague at a workplace Christmas party last month. The staff member alleged she was sexually harassed by the man on 24 November 2023. The employee had been removed from the workplace “following a complaint from a colleague about their behaviour”. The ABC said that “the employee will remain absent” while the matter is under investigation. It said that “any allegations of this kind are always thoroughly investigated and alleged victims are always offered counselling and support.” The chief people officer of the ABC, Dharma Chandran, sent an email to staff following the Christmas party to remind them of expectations at work functions. Mr Chandran said that “as teams are coming together to celebrate another successful year at the ABC, we would like to remind you of the importance of respectful and responsible behaviour at ABC’s end-of-year celebrations and other work-related social events.”