An employer in the construction industry has been ordered to pay $1.3million in damages and compensation to a former employee after it reluctantly admitted negligence in relation to serious workplace bullying, abuse and sexual harassment of the employee causing psychological injury.

What happened?

The female employee was a labourer with the construction company.  She was subjected to repeated inappropriate and offensive comments, bullying by colleagues and her manager and relentless sexual harassment by a number of her male colleagues.  The evidence shows that her manager made comments that she was “useless”, “a bimbo” and, while screening pornography in a workplace area, asked whether she would do what the actresses in the film were doing.  The employee’s colleagues repeatedly and frequently made comments about her body and spoke in graphic terms about what lewd acts they would like to perform with her.  On one occasion, a colleague physically restrained her and simulated having intercourse with her.  

On what turned out to be the employee’s final day at work with the company, a colleague said to the female employee, “I am going to follow you home, rip your clothes off and rape you.”  The employee immediately contacted the person she believed to be responsible for human resources at the company to report the comment, who invited her to his house to have a drink and talk things over.  She subsequently received an anonymous abusive phone call and she was unable to return to work after this.

The employee had previously reported inappropriate behaviour to her manager, who laughed at her.  She had also reported various incidents to the site foreman who told the employee to leave it with him.  Unfortunately, the employee saw no action taken as a result of her making the complaints.

The Court found that the employee sustained, and continues to suffer from, chronic and significant psychiatric injuries as a direct result of the bullying, abuse and sexual harassment.  She is not expected to be able to work again.  The company reluctantly conceded that it had been negligent in its duties, causing the employee to suffer the injuries.  It has been ordered to pay $1.3million in damages and compensation to the former employee.

Lessons for employers

Employers must take complaints of bullying or sexual harassment seriously.  As employers can be liable for the acts of their employees, employers should ensure that their business:

  1. has proper systems and processes in place for complaints to be actioned and resolved, including alternate arrangements in case the person who would normally receive the complaint is accused of being involved in the inappropriate behaviour;
  2. has appropriate policies in place dealing with sexual harassment and bullying; and
  3. conducts education and training for all staff on appropriate workplace behaviour and enforces appropriate workplace behaviour in line with policies and processes.