9 April 2021
She is the pretty new employee. He is the director twice her age. Almost immediately he takes her under his wing and the two develop an unofficial mentor-mentee relationship that deepens her professional respect for him. Despite their different ages and standing in the company, they form a friendship, and she wonders how she got so lucky to have a boss so approachable in her first full time job.
Then things start to change. She is frequently late to work and keeps to herself. Other staff have seen her teary on occasions. A month later she resigns. She’d held on for as long as she could for the sake of her career, but the sleazy comments, the explicit text messages late at night, and the overall sense of powerlessness were too much.
Like one in three Australian women, she was the victim of workplace sexual harassment. But the harasser was not her boss, or even someone in a position of authority.
Erica was an Apprentice Advisor, which meant that the company contracted her out to adult education colleges to act as a mentor to certain students. It was in the all-male classrooms that Erica was subjected to sexual jokes and comments, and on several occasions caught students taking photos of her. She did her best to assert her authority and address the behaviour during class (though she felt vulnerable and humiliated in doing so), but as part of her role Erica was also expected to give students her mobile phone number. She began receiving explicit messages from anonymous numbers late at night, and due to the mental health component of the mentoring, turning her phone off outside of work hours was not an option in case a student called in crisis. It was an impossible situation.
This is not such an uncommon situation as it might seem. It even has a name- harassment from below.
Leah also experienced harassment from below when teaching English at an adult education centre. “There was a particular student who would send me Facebook messages commenting on the clothes I’d worn that day. He even left me a ‘love letter,’” she explained.
Both Leah and Erica complained to their managers about the incidences but found the responses less than satisfactory. A major issue was that the instigators were not employees- they were considered akin to clients.
This doesn’t necessarily lessen the obligation on employers under health and safety laws, but it can confuse and complicate their reactions. And complications are the last thing needed in many workplaces that are already ill-equipped to deal with sexual harassment.
This was demonstrated all too well in the recent activities in Parliament House and the Liberal party, to the extent that Prime Minister Scott Morrison is set to adopt four of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s recommendations contained in the ‘Respect @ Work’ report.
Conspicuously missing however, is the introduction of a positive duty of employers to prevent sexual harassment. As expressed by Kate Jenkins, this is a “missed opportunity” not only to afford greater protection to women such as Erica and Leah, but I would argue, to influence workplace culture and change the attitude towards sexual harassment from reactionary to proactive.
My own experiences have given the unfortunate impression that employers often consider women (dismissive of the male experience) in this context as potential liabilities rather than people- people who for the most part would prefer to get on with their jobs than navigate HR hoops unless absolutely necessary.
For example, a previous manager of mine once circulated a memo advising employees to watch their behaviour at staff Christmas parties because “We don’t want any sexual harassment claims.” Note that it was “claims” of harassment that this manager sought to prevent, not harassment itself.
On another occasion, I was alone in a male staff member’s office when he opened the door, joking that “We don’t want a ‘Me too’ situation.” Not only does this insultingly imply that I would make a false accusation given the chance, but it once more suggests that the complaint is more serious than the behaviour.
Even seemingly well-meaning responses to harassment can emphasise resolution over employee wellbeing. HR procedures that include steps such as mediation between the parties could arguably further traumatise a victim.
No legislation can make an employer consider the safety of staff before liability. But if it’s liability that’s the driving factor, why not extend that liability to preventative action? Prevention is always better than the cure, particularly in cases of sexual harassment where, by the time an incident is reported, the damage is already done.
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