A recent succession of high profile bullying, harassment and sexual discrimination claims in the media has reinforced the need for employers to ensure they have appropriate policies and procedures to promote a positive workplace culture.

What are the risks of a claim?

  • Financial exposure including compensation, damages and fines imposed for breaches of OH&S laws.
  • Loss of corporate reputation, negative impact on share price and the undermining of a reputation as an employer of choice.  
  • Personal liability for CEO and Board members, for failing to comply with OH&S obligations.  

Also, as shown in the Cafe Vamp case, employees who engage in bullying and harassment can be subject to significant monetary fines as the result of a bullying and harassment prosecution.

How to reduce the risks?

To limit the risk of bullying, harassment and sexual discrimination claims employers need to take charge of their policies and procedures and promote an appropriate workplace culture. Here are some key points for employers to consider when doing this.

  • Go beyond policies that talk of zero tolerance to bullying, harassment and discrimination. Act on those policies!  
  • Ensure the policies are relevant and tailored to your organisation.  
  • Training, training and more training – at induction, at policy implementation and on an ongoing basis. Ensure employees always know what is acceptable and what isn’t.  
  • You are being watched! The promotion of appropriate attitudes within the workplace needs to be top down.  
  • Encourage a culture of communication so that line managers receive and feed information up the line to identify issues early.  
  • Let employees know that complaints will be dealt with sensitively so that they have confidence to report issues.  
  • Treat all complaints, even minor ones seriously. They can easily escalate.  
  • Be prepared to explore all possible alternatives to resolve the complaint e.g. early mediation instead of investigation.  

Investigation tips

If an investigation is needed seek to get the best outcome for all involved. Here are some issues to consider throughout:

  • Protect whistle blowers and do not allow them to become a target or victim.  
  • Take control of complaints as soon as possible. Do not leave it until an external party comes knocking and begins to set the agenda. Organisations such as the Human Rights Commission, and state and federal occupational health and safety regulators will allow you to maintain control of your internal complaint process, and not proactively intervene, if you are seen to be acting promptly in response to and taking complaints seriously.  
  • Maintain confidentiality over the complaint investigation process and its outcome, and stipulate penalties for any breach of this.  
  • Ensure that those investigating complaints have the appropriate empathy and the skill set to deal with such claims.  
  • Suggest that the complainant get some legal representation to help them through the process, especially if they are having difficulties coping or complying with the procedures.