Whilst sexual harassment complaints are on the rise, there is still a significant gap between incidents of inappropriate behaviour that are sexual harassment in the workplace and those that are reported.

In a recent blog titled How to identify sexual harassment in workplaces, we noticed that one-third of the respondents who first said they had not experienced sexual harassment based on the legal definition, then went on later in the survey to report they had experienced behaviour in the workplace that would constitute sexual harassment.

The latest survey by AHRC in 2018 reports that 49% of respondents said they had not experienced sexual harassment when showed the legal definition, who later went on to say that they were subjected to sexual harassment behaviour. This suggests the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace is often not identified. There is further evidence to suggest that even when identified, unfortunately, far too often it is not reported in a timely manner, or at all. Victims take on an ‘it must have been me’ thought process and it is all downhill from there!

This is one of several articles that we will be writing to give examples of sexual harassment in the workplace and to provide a better understanding of how to identify when sexual harassment is taking place and how to report such incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace.

This first example of workplace sexual harassment is one of the more challenging ones to identify. We will be posting other scenarios as well to give you more examples of sexual harassment in the workplace that can go unnoticed or that people feel uncomfortable to report

Scenario: At a work function or an out of hours event with work colleagues or customers 

Julie is a new employee in a marketing agency in Brisbane that employees about 70 staff. It has been four months now and today is her birthday!

The office has been decorated with balloons and ribbons and everyone had a great day at work celebrating her birthday. It was a Friday, so many people also stayed after work deciding to party at a pub close by to the office.

Julie and a few of her close work colleagues arrived a little late, and some others were already at the table with their drinks and had been drinking for some time already. They appeared to be happier than normal. Since Julie was new and people were aware of her ‘single status’, some of the guys were keen on talking with her at a more personal level.

As she entered the pub a couple of the guys from another department started to hoot and whistle. Julie and other women found it a bit awkward but they ignored it and put it down to ‘just part of the birthday cheer’.

As Julie was greeting everyone, some people with a hug, Jim the accountant whom Julie didn’t know so well, hugged her a bit longer than would be considered normal. He pressed his body against her tightly, and this made her feel uncomfortable. A few people noticed it but chose to turn a blind eye. Julie talked about this to her friend Gloria. Gloria suggested she keep a distance from him as Jim has been known for this type of behaviour.

As they were hanging out Jim commented that Julie looked really nice in white and that it would “be a real pity if she happened to spill a glass of water all the way down the front of her shirt.”  This was responded with some awkward chuckles followed by uncomfortable silence.

From that point on Jim and Julie were being teased, by what appeared to be a little ‘boys club’ representing Jim and it was all a bit uncomfortable for those who were within earshot of the group. This set the tone for the entire night, despite Julie doing her best to keep a safe distance from Jim and his groupies. When confronted by this ongoing behaviour, Julie laughed it off uncomfortable, since Julie was new in the company and wanted to be accepted.

Going her way back home in a cab, she constantly felt some uneasiness within her.

She tried to brush it off, with other thoughts. She told herself she was just being negative and rationalised what happened at the pub as much as she could, but the knot in her stomach would just not go away.

Fortunately, she was accompanied in the cab with her good friend and workmate Penny. Penny was in the corporate space for six years and happened to know enough about employee rights.

Julie (nervously): Penny, I need to tell you something.

Penny(compassionately): Sure, Julie Go ahead.

Julie: Tell me if I’m over-thinking, because I do that.

Penny: Relax, just tell me about it.

Julie narrates everything in detail to Penny and asks:

Julie: Should I be feeling this bad? It’s probably not even that serious.

Penny: Ah, Julie I was going to talk about it, just wanted your birthday to end. First of all, I’m sorry that you had to experience this. Especially on your birthday.

But, coming to the point! You are entitled to feel the way you are, and more than that you are entitled to take stern action against Jim. Had I known about the hug, I would have intervened right then, in the moment.

Julie (sighs): Oh!

Penny (her eyes now glaring): All these behaviours are inappropriate and are an example of sexual harassment and it doesn’t matter whether they happen at the office or at out of hours functions like this. It is still considered to be the workplace and that type of behaviour is not to be tolerated.

Julie (curiously): So are you saying that even though we were not at the office and this did not happen during working hours, is this still considered to be inappropriate behavior and in line with our company policy and code of conduct.

Penny: Yes, it is, regardless of the time and space, misbehaviour by a work colleague to another work colleague is illegal and at times even criminal.

Julie (with an expression of disbelief): I didn’t know that.

Penny: Unfortunately, we do not have any training for things like bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination. I know at my previous business we used an online system from a company called Sentrient. It came with legally compliant training that was really short, sharp and to the point. Our company also rolled out really clear policies through the same system, so everyone got the training and reinforcement of our policies and procedures all at the same time. Everyone had to do them when they started and on an annual basis. It just became part of the way we did things. Our CEO used to address our people every year at the time of the refresher training and deal with code of conduct and let everyone know exactly what was and was not appropriate at work, outside of work. The timing of this rollout and face to face brief to the business was in the lead up to end of year work events, quite masterful if you ask me! It made everyone feel really safe and reinforced the importance of treating each other well and watching out for others both at work and outside of work. I reckon engagement spiked for weeks after this speech each year. It was genuine and straight from the heart, which was pretty normal for our CEO, especially on matters like this that meant so much to our culture.

Julie: Alright, thank you. So it was the hugging part, that comes under sexual harassment, right?

Penny (with raised voice): No. It was the whole scened from start to end. It started with the whistling and hooting which was uncomfortable, then the awkward hug, and then the sexual innuendo about your white shirt. This was compounded by some of the teasings that took place after that.

Julie (calmly): Thanks Penny, this is relieving I would not have known that I was sexually harassed if it weren’t for you.

Penny: No worries, and unfortunately others have been in the same situation as you before and have not been able to identify the behaviour as sexual harassment and did not report it. Tomorrow I will join you in going to Robert, who is responsible for the code of conduct and we will bring it to his attention. Don’t worry Julie, you will be looked after. I will help you and you can be sure Robert will as well. For now, just remember, there was nothing that you did that was wrong. Everything is going to be ok, but we must report this as to prevent such incidents from happening again. To you or to anyone else.

Workplace Sexual Harassment regardless of its intensity deserves to be called out, as it affects the mental and physical health of an employee. This, in turn, affects businesses directly. According to the law, if an employer fails to train their employees in workplace compliance they may be held vicariously liable.

It is the role of HR, or whoever wheres that hat in your business to mandate workplace compliance training for all staff and ensure that appropriate policies are in place. Such training and policies need to be delivered to new starters and to all people and groups on a regular basis. This will protect your people and also mitigate the risk of legal liabilities and other disasters in the event of an incident such as the one in this article, taking place.

Sentrient is an online compliance system for Australian Businesses. We believe that you must train your employees’ areas relating to dignity at work, which includes code of conduct, appropriate behaviour at work and other core compliance training such as work health and safety, privacy, bullying, harassment and discrimination. Our core products include a suite of legally compliant online courses, a workplace compliance policy builder and a comprehensive compliance records feature, all which is readily available online 24 x7 when and configured with automated notifications and escalation reports.

Keep your employees safe, and contact Sentrient today. Or reach out to us on info@sentrient.com.au or 1300 040 589.