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Harassed while pregnant: former policewoman awarded $250,000

Pregnancy is meant to be a joyous time, celebrated by families, friends and workmates alike.

Sadly, some backward employers are not sharing in the celebratory mood, despite strong laws against pregnancy discrimination, harassment and bullying.

One such case is that of a pregnant former policewoman whose supervisor, when told she was pregnant, asked her to leave voluntarily so he wouldn't be "stuck" with her and told her not to attend an office meeting because "you're pregnant, you've got nothing to contribute".

The woman, Karen Aden Willett, had been appointed a detective at the South Melbourne criminal investigation unit in 2004 when the harassment began, with rumours circulating that she had slept with her boss to get the job.

Ms Willett, who became mentally ill after being bullied by colleagues, sued the government for damages, claiming the state's negligence had caused her pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment of life as a consequence of the bullying and harassment.

The civil trial heard Ms Willett's weight dropped to 38kg, she began vomiting before going to work and would pick her hands until they bled until she left the job in 2006. She also became afraid to leave home, would wear disguises for fear of being recognised by former colleagues, suffered a major depressive disorder for which she took a cocktail of powerful medications and had attempted to take her own life in 2011.

The court heard Ms Willett would be permanently unfit to return to the force, despite having been an excellent, hardworking officer.

A Victorian Supreme Court jury found the government had been negligent but found Ms Willett had contributed to her situation and awarded her $108,000. Ms Willett appealed, arguing the amount was manifestly inadequate, and that there was no evidence to sustain a finding of contributory negligence.

The Court of Appeal agreed; it awarded her $250,000 and overturned the finding of contributory negligence.

Also this year, the owner of a home-ware shop near Melbourne unilaterally reduced the roster of a pregnant employee from 27 hours to 7 hours per week, and was ordered by the Fair Work Ombudsman to pay the employee $2,000 in compensation and place an advertisement in the Chinese language press to raise awareness of pregnancy discrimination in the Chinese community.

iHR Australia advises that discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy is unlawful, as are the repeated negative actions that constitute bullying. Under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, discrimination can include giving an individual less skilled or demanding work because they are pregnant, as well as denying access to training, transfer, promotion or other benefits associated with employment.

iHR Australia specialises in workplace training. Our Custodians of Culture training program is designed to give managers, team leaders and supervisors the skills and knowledge required to understand their role and responsibilities in relation to discrimination, harassment and bullying at work. The program also looks at how workplace culture is a key element in preventing inappropriate behaviour.

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