What’s Been Happening in Australia in Relation to Sexual Harassment, Discrimination and Bullying from 5 – 10 December 2016

Women at Fairfax Media Exposed to Customer Harassment
Fairfax Media has conducted an investigation into customer-client harassment, considering the implications of the 2011 amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act. These amendments made it illegal for customers to sexually harass employees. Further, these changes imposed potential liability upon employers who did not take reasonable steps to protect staff. However, since these changes, complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission have barely risen. Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins receives around 200 complaints relating to workplace harassment per year, a figure that has plateaued in recent years. Of these complaints, 17 per cent relate to the provision of goods and services, including customers harassing employees. These figures are similar at the state and territory level with around 150 cases of customer-client harassment registered each year.

The 20 women interviewed by Fairfax media reported experiencing moderate verbal or physical harassment on a daily or weekly basis, with major incidents including rape threats, stalking, or a physical attack occurring annually. Many of the women interviewed reported that they either felt unable to raise harassment with management, or, felt brushed off or blamed for “attract[ing] that kind of thing” when harassment was raised with management.

Although many employers understand their requirements in relation to staff-on-staff harassment (e.g. implementing policies, developing complaints mechanisms and engaging in training to build awareness of bullying and harassment in the workplace) – the investigation found that the threat of vicarious liability has not made employers take customer harassment seriously. Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chief Executive James Pearson did not respond to questions about how many companies have policies relating to customer harassment of staff. Mr Pearson acknowledged policies and training could held employees respond to “inappropriate customer behaviour.”

Lingerie Chain Honey Birdetter in the Hot Seat for Alleged Sexist Treatment of Employees
Lingerie chain Honey Birdette has been forced to defend its workplace culture amid claims that employees are sexually harassed and bullied. Former employees have stated that the problem begins with the recruitment process, which revolves around the physical appearance of candidates, through the use of methods such as video interviewing and social media. Once employed, women must adhere to a strict uniform policy that includes high heels and skirts and items from current lingerie range. Further, it is alleged that employees were required to send daily selfies to managers so that they can determine whether the employees are exposing three items of branded lingerie. These allegations are compounded by statements made by former employees that Honey Birdette management had no training in dealing with sexual harassment or formal complaint mechanisms.

Many complaints stem from the “Little Black Book” a staff handbook, which provides employees with guidelines regarding how workers should present themselves to customers. The handbook includes a series of phrases that employees are directed to use when dealing with customers including: “Spank me if I’m wrong but…”, “Kinky Cats”, and “We are all purveyors of modern sauciness”.

A petition has commenced calling on Honey Birdette to cease sexist workplace practices and stop encouraging harassment by customers.

The Age Editor Resigns due to Sexual Harassment Allegations
The Age’s editor-in-chief Mark Forbes has resigned following allegations of sexual harassment, admitting that he has failed to uphold required standards of behaviour. Fairfax suspended Mr Forbes in relation to a sexual harassment allegation. After the initial allegation, a second woman has come forward with claims that Mr Forbes made unwanted sexual advanced to her. In an email sent to staff, Mr Forbes stated that he supported the right of any employee who feels they have been “treated unfairly, disrespectfully, or harassed” to report it, stating: “this is, I hope, a reminder to all that our dealings with all women must be respectful and equitable at all times.”

Australian Defence Force Rise in Sexual Assault Claims
The Australian Defence Force is struggling to address the increasing number of reports of sexual assault and acts of indecency. Reports of aggravated sexual assault have risen annually since 2012 and reported acts of indecency are at their highest level in five years.

A report released by the Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Office has indicated that 245 sexual misconduct incident reports were received in 2015-16. The majority related to sexual assaults, acts of indecency, or other offences against the person, while roughly 30% were sexual harassment complaints and 5% related to pornography. The number of reports of sexual misconduct received was lower than the two previous years but was still well above 2011-12 and 2012-13. A further 30 reports of aggravated sexual assaults were received in 2015-16, continuing an increase year-on-year since the 20 reports received in 2012-13. There were also 85 reports of acts of indecency in 2015-16, the highest number in five years.

Workplace Gender Violence for Women, a “serious risk” in Victoria
A report released by the Victorian Trades Hall Council has indicated that gendered violence is a serious health and safety problem for many Victorian workers. Of the 500 women surveyed, 64% reported experiencing bullying, harassment or violence in their workplace. Sixty per cent of women surveyed reported having felt “unsafe, uncomfortable or at risk” in their workplace. Nineteen per cent of respondents cited an “unsafe work environment” as a factor in their decision to leave paid work.

Data on Workplace Bullying in Australian Workplaces
The Australian Workplace Barometer project has produced the first national collection of information on bullying and harassment in Australian workplaces. This project indicated that almost 10% of workers have been bullied in the past six months. The Barometer project put forward three reasons for the increase in the rate of workplace bullying namely a lack of managerial regard for workplace psychological health and safety; bullying and harassment used to generate greater productivity from workers; and personal power plays.

Rhonda Brighton-Hall, a human resources expert, has suggested that the rise in workplace bullying is a combination of increased workplace pressure and a backlash to managers’ loss of control in the modern world. Ms Brighton Hall stated, “The workforce is so mobile. People are working from home, they are moving around. They [managers] don’t have the control they used to have […] They used to sit at their desk, the team sat in front of them and they had control. Now they don’t. So they try to put processes in place to try and control everybody, they put in more and more rules and expectations so that nobody really knows what they are.” Ms Brighton Hall stated that she has seen an increase in incidents of workplace bullying and harassment, an increase that is influenced by the “increase in understanding [of] what bullying is.”

The Barometer project recommends organisations improve psychological safety by reducing work conditions such as high demand, high pressure, high competition and low control/power situations.

Anglican Diocese in Legal Action with Employee who Advocated for Victims of Sexual Abuse Inside the Church
John Cleary, the business manager of the Newcastle Anglican Diocese has launched legal action against the church with the Fair Work Commission, claiming he was marginalised because of his advocacy for victims of child sexual abuse inside the church. Mr Cleary stated he has been “punished by the church for being a ‘whistle-blower’, and for my actions in trying to get the best outcome for survivors.” It is reported that Mr Cleary has commenced an adverse action application for bullying and harassment.