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Sexual harassment claims – are HR Departments up to it?

3 September 2013

Sexual harassment in the workplace can damage an organisation's reputation particularly if the organisation fails to investigate and deal with the allegations appropriately and quickly.

The Federal Court heard last week that a retail CEO allegedly touched a young British designer inappropriately, forced her to model underwear and made lewd, inappropriate comments.

This was despite her having allegedly complained to a supervisor.

The complainant also said she was lavished with unwanted attention, with the CEO taking her on regular shopping trips during which he would tell her how attractive she was and that men must be falling over themselves to "get into her pants".

The employee said that on a visit to a store in late 2011 the CEO touched her inappropriately more than once and when she subsequently complained to a colleague, the woman also burst into tears, saying she had been subjected to similar behaviour.

She told court that after the CEO learned of her complaint, he gave her the silent treatment and would not sign off on her work. "I was worried that if I left my job I would have to leave the country," the British designer said.

The CEO allegedly made her take pictures at what was to be a "cheeky" catalogue photo shoot, picturing a female colleague semi-naked. She said the CEO became frenzied and then told her to delete the photos and not tell anyone about the shoot.

On two other occasions, he made her model underwear in front of him, she claimed.

The court heard that the complainant's lawyers will call as a witness another former employee, who claims that the CEO regularly harassed her and asked her to appear in a black catsuit as "Pussy Galore" in an advertising campaign. The CEO, who was present in court, denies that he acted in an inappropriate sexual manner towards the plaintiff.

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Also last week, the alleged shortcomings of a major energy provider were in focus when a former Government and Corporate Affairs Director claimed she had been unfairly dismissed after complaining about sexual harassment from the then Chief Financial Officer. The CFO also allegedly pulled down the trousers of a fellow male employee in the presence of other staff, in a "prank gone wrong".

The complainant's lawyers alleged in the Federal Court that there was a "culture of sexual harassment at the company" from the CEO down and that senior executives and the human resources department mishandled her sexual harassment complaints.

It is also alleged that the Human Resources Director had to follow the CEO around at the Christmas party to guard against untoward behaviour, although the company's lawyers claimed in response that the CEO was incapable of such behaviour at the party in question because he was recovering from major surgery.

The employee was retrenched in a restructure but has subsequently claimed that her role, which paid half a million dollars per annum, was effectively continued via the employment of a replacement with a similar job function.

The company has stated its intention to "vigorously defend the claims in court", saying it had "done its best to resolve this dispute in a fair and equitable manner".

People and Culture Strategies managing principal Joydeep Hor, speaking generally on sexual harassment issues, said companies often failed to properly educate staff. "There's a tendency to think that if you merely have a policy and do some basic training and induction time you'll cover yourself," he said.

The bungling of complaints exacerbates the issue, Mr Hor said, "there'll be a blind eye turned to it, an attempt to fix it between two people, sometimes they'll ignore it because the people are bringing in good money to the organisation."

Without commenting specifically on the abovementioned case, workplace lawyer Michael Harmer said there was a major cultural issue with HR Departments being seen as "an extension of management" when dealing with bullying and harassment cases.

One solution to a potentially compromised HR Department is HR outsourcing. Using an external consultant to conduct some of your organisation's HR activities such as workplace investigations or mediation helps to show a commitment to impartiality and to ensure that the process is fair. iHR Australia provides a range of HR outsourcing services on a long term, on demand and project basis. To learn more call 1300 884 687 or make an online enquiry.

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