With the season of Christmas parties, Spring racing and social events fast approaching, it’s time for employers to take stock of their potential exposure to risk of litigation involving sexual harassment, a legal expert warns.
According to Lisa Berton, Partner in Kemp Strang’s Employment Law practice, the ‘workplace’ does not end in the office. Work-sponsored events and out-of-hours socialising are key danger zones – as demonstrated in the high-profile David Jones suit by Kristy Fraser-Kirk, where the alleged incidents occurred at external functions.
Ms Berton says the David Jones case has some important messages for employers.
“The fact that Ms Fraser-Kirk could extend her claim beyond Mr McInnes to the Board of Directors and members of senior management demonstrates the gravity of the issue and the importance of preventative measures.
“It’s important that all employers are aware of the definition of sexual harassment. It can be any uninvited or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that offends, humiliates or intimidates another person, whether or not that effect is intended,” says Ms Berton
The intention or motive of the person engaging in the conduct is irrelevant, and the recipient doesn’t have to express objection to the conduct.
“Certainly what is considered ‘acceptable behaviour’ may vary widely among individuals, so there are myriad potential risks for employers.
“Making suggestive comments about a person’s apparel, particular styles of dancing, flicking bra straps – these are all examples of risky behaviour that can lead to claims of sexual harassment. And of course, the risks are amplified when you introduce alcohol to the mix,” Ms Berton said.
She points out that employers don’t have to be draconian about end-of-year events to protect themselves. Rather, she provides some tips for consideration that can help minimise the risks:
- Actively articulate and promote a standard of expected behaviour at work functions that does not tolerate discrimination or harassment.
- Make the message clear: offsite events, whether a client Christmas party, a team lunch or a corporate box at the cricket, do not mean standards of behaviour can slip.
- Ensure there is a complaint handling process in place – make the workplace conducive to receiving complaints and, if they arise, act quickly.
- Establish a framework for recording all incidents and complaints. This will help identify issues and may safeguard the company should a suit be filed.
- Make clear to employees that these policies are not simple rhetoric – invest time in expressing the organisation’s commitment to providing a safe and healthy workplace.