In recent decision, the District Court of New South Wales has awarded a former employee $733,723.00 in damages for psychological injury arising out of serious sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation at work.

What happened?

The applicant was found to have suffered repeated serious sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation by her male manager, who was a director of the employer company.

The proven conduct of the director included him repeatedly yelling at her and other co-workers, making various inappropriate comments of a sexual nature about her attire, rubbing himself against the applicant and repeatedly groping the applicant on her genitals and breasts.  The applicant complained to the director’s wife, who was also a director of the company, but it appears that she did nothing to stop the sexual harassment and bullying, which continued.  The applicant left the workplace and made a worker’s compensation claim as a result of serious psychological injury that she had suffered arising from the director’s conduct.  After leaving work, the director attended the applicant’s home, unannounced.  The applicant later received a telephone death threat, which police traced to the office of the director’s accountant.

As a result of the director’s persistent serious sexual harassment and bullying behaviour, the applicant suffered an adjustment disorder with serious anxiety and depression. She was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, and suffered from reduced motivation, avoidance, withdrawal, sleeping difficulties and struggles over mood swings.

The court found that the employer breached its duty to take reasonable care to avoid exposing the employee to unnecessary risk of injury in the workplace, which extended to ensuring the employee was not bullied, sexually harassed, or intimidated at work. 

Lessons for employers

Employers must walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk when dealing with complaints about inappropriate workplace behaviour, including sexual harassment and bullying.  It is essential to have a comprehensive, promulgated, appropriate workplace behaviour policy and grievance procedure, and ensure the employees and managers receive training about their own, and the employer’s, obligations regarding appropriate workplace behaviour.  Where complaints are made, they must be investigated and responded to promptly and appropriately.