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Weinstein effect: a wakeup call on workplace sexual harassment

Workplace Relations & Safety
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It can feel like not a day goes by without someone new being named and shamed in the sexual harassment scandals currently rocking the entertainment industry. So in this cultural moment, what should HR be doing in their organisations?

While the extent of the alleged misconduct is shocking, the allegations have put workplace sexual harassment in the spotlight (again). Here are some guidelines we suggest for facing this issue head on, and avoiding the Weinstein effect in your workplace.

Make it safe and easy for people to report sexual harassment

There is no “one size fits all” approach for dealing with sexual harassment. State and Federal anti-discrimination legislation does not prescribe any particular type of complaint procedure. This means employers have the flexibility to create appropriate systems for their size and structure. Keeping that in mind, in our experience the key elements for effective complaint management are:

  • A clearly articulated and easy to follow process that offers both formal and informal options. The process should also specify that retaliation against complainants will not be tolerated.
  • Effective communication of the procedure to employees. If staff know that management support and encourage a “speak-up” culture, they are more likely to engage with the internal grievance process.
  • Ensuring that people who have responsibility for dealing with sexual harassment complaints are trained appropriately. This type of training should be face-to-face to ensure that messaging is consistent and the seriousness of the issues are conveyed. Training will help any complainants or potential complainants feel confident that their grievances will be taken seriously and dealt with effectively, and appropriately prepare those who may end up dealing with such complaints.

Be proactive

The current coverage of Hollywood sexual harassment scandals might provide your business an opportunity to start a dialogue with staff about the issue, if you haven’t already done so. For example, you could conduct an anonymous “health check” survey, asking employees for their experiences and feedback about sexual harassment.

Alternatively, managers could be encouraged to raise the issue with their teams. Open communication about the company’s approach to dealing with sexual harassment can help prevent problems before they develop.

You could also consider providing training sessions for your staff on the different forms of sexual harassment, what to do if they experience or witness sexual harassment, and – very importantly – what support the company will offer them if they make a complaint.

Real consequences

Much has been made about Hollywood’s “culture of complicity” in relation to sexual misconduct. To avoid an organisational climate that is perceived as permissive of harassment and discrimination, employees should know that inappropriate conduct will be dealt with swiftly, and perpetrators will face real consequences.

In our experience, the path of least resistance for many employers may be to dismiss a harasser, but provide a pay-out in return for a deed of release, to ensure the matter goes away quietly. This option is often viewed favourably because it is seen to minimise the potential for reputational damage. However, organisations may actually find that their reputation is enhanced (internally and externally), by sticking to their guns and dismissing wrongdoers without notice, and without any hush-money.

The promise of appropriate disciplinary action may increase the likelihood of complainants coming forward – and may also make potential harassers and toxic personalities think twice about their actions.

The benefits of taking action on sexual harassment

The benefits of employers taking a strong lead on sexual harassment are significant. From a legal perspective, clear policies and grievance procedures that are effectively communicated may help mitigate a business’s vicarious liability risk.

More importantly, having these systems in place and letting employees know that the company stands behind them, helps develop and maintain a culture of respect, and minimise the possibility of a Weinstein winding up in your office.

This article is part of a regular employment law column series for HRM Online by Workplace Relations & Safety partner Aaron Goonrey and lawyer Sara Wescott. It was first published in HRM Online on 29 November 2017. The HRM Online version of this article is available here.

All information on this site is of a general nature only and is not intended to be relied upon as, nor to be a substitute for, specific legal professional advice. No responsibility for the loss occasioned to any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any material published can be accepted.

Key contacts

Sara Wescott

Senior Associate