A mature-age work placement student working at a suburban law firm has won a six-figure payout from her employer after repeated and severe sexual harassment. The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal was told that in just one night, the woman’s boss requested sex from her 78 times.
The woman, a mother-of-three who cannot be identified by tribunal order, brought 14 complaints of sexual harassment under the Equal Opportunity Act. Eleven of the complaints were upheld and on Wednesday the woman was awarded $100,000 in damages. The tribunal heard sordid details of the harassment, reported the Age.
The woman was scheduled in mid-2011 to complete an 80-day work placement but the boss sacked her after 50 days. The incidents started in May and continued to July. At one stage the victim had her shoulders massaged and her hair fondled. On other occasions, she was shown inappropriate videos and was subjected to sexually suggestive comments. The woman was also sent a photo of her boss in a full-frontal pose, naked.
The woman was previously friends with her boss before she started her placement. Their friendship increased when the woman became particularly friendly with the boss’s partner. Two of the woman’s friends also had encounters with the boss and rejected his sexual advances.
In his judgment, Justice Greg Garde said there was no harassment before the placement started and it was plausible that the woman had not complained until after she was fired from the placement – she did not want to upset him or lose his support because the placement was important to her future career prospects.
The boss contended that the incidents did not happen, or, that if they did, his actions did not constitute sexual harassment because they were not unwelcome. He also claimed that the woman had told him she would fake a sexual harassment claim so that he would be forced to sell his business and give her money.
Justice Garde dismissed this argument as implausible.
The woman had suffered psychologically as a result of the harassment, the tribunal heard, and was now only working two days a week.
Justice Garde said the woman’s suffering had been severe and significant, and included post-traumatic stress disorder. He also said the boss’s arguments that the woman could have spoken her mind more directly or removed herself from the situation were “unpersuasive”.
“If an employer does engage in the sexual harassment of an employee, it is not appropriate to criticise the employee on the basis that she should have handled the sexual harassment better or should have stormed out of the room or escaped from the harasser earlier,” he said, “It is enough if the respondent’s conduct constitutes sexual harassment under the act.”
Simply put, sexual harassment is any form of unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which may make someone feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. iHR Australia warns that the law makes employers responsible for eliminating sexual harassment and victimisation as much as possible. Employers are legally liable for acts of sexual harassment against employees unless they can prove they took reasonable measures to prevent them. These measures should include appropriate policies and effective training.