Reducing the risk of sexual harassment

Early in my career, when I started work in a dealing room and girls would come in for an interview, they would typically have to walk past the traders on their way out. A number of the traders would hold up a piece of paper with a score out of ten! I’m absolutely sure that the girls knew what was going on but no-one said a word. Today this sort of behaviour is against the law but there is still some confusion about what is and what isn’t appropriate behaviour in the workplace.

As an employer you have a duty of care to provide your employees with a safe place to work. Sexual harassment is far more common than people realise and it needs to be addressed through education and action. I recommend that you follow these four steps to reduce your risk of a case of sexual harassment in your workplace:

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1. Code of Conduct Policy
Develop a Code of Conduct and a supporting policy for all employees; ensure each of them signs off on these, stating that they have read, understood and agree to abide by them. This way everyone is aware and can self-manage, to a certain extent, what is and what isn’t appropriate behaviour.

2. Training
Conduct annual sexual harassment prevention training, ensuring employees’ sign off when they attend. These sessions are an opportunity for employees to ask questions and are often entertaining and enjoyable to attend. Both steps 1 & 2 will help mitigate your risk should an employee raise a complaint. In the recent case of Sharma v. QS Pty Ltd t/as KFC Punchbowl, the Administrative Decisions Tribunal then had to determine whether the employer had authorised the employee engaging in the conduct in question, or failed to take all necessary steps to prevent the conduct.

3. Lead by example
The leadership team needs to set a positive example by their own behaviour but also needs to quickly shut down any inappropriate conversations or behaviour before it escalates. They should also attend the training sessions as this shows the team that the matter is taken seriously. This may also enable them to identify potential situations and to quickly respond to them.

4. EEO Contact Officers
Most large organisations have EEO Contact officers for employees to approach in confidence, for advice and support. This is an excellent way to reduce or avoid complaints before they escalate. This may not be an option in a small organisation, where handling an issue confidentially and quietly is critical. I would strongly recommend that you have someone from outside of the business to play the mediation role, as this may protect you from the difficult conversations and potentially avoid a lengthy and expensive legal battle.

If you have someone available who understands the law, the implications and appropriate actions, has strong mediation and facilitation skills and the relevant training, the majority of complaints can be managed to the mutual satisfaction of both parties.

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Natasha Hawker is the owner and Managing Director of Employee Matters Pty Ltd. Employee Matters is an HR Consultancy that assists small to medium businesses with their HR functions to make them more efficient and profitable. Their offerings includes HR Management, Recruitment, Training, Coaching, and Exit Management.

Employee Matters helps SMEs with their HR practices & employee engagement increasing productivity and profits. They play the role of a business partner that has a long term relationship with clients, coming into their business on an as-needs basis or on a part-time, ongoing basis; for example a business with a headcount of, say 20 employees, might need one of the HR Partners once a week in an HR capacity. She is also the mother of three young children and a passionate employer of mums who want flexibility and still be able to do great work.