Workplace sexual harassment

13 Dec 2023

Workplace sexual harassment is prevalent and pervasive. Every year we deliver client-centred, trauma informed support to people (disproportionately, women) who have been sexually harassed at work. Here are some of their stories (names have been changed).

Within a week of starting work, Meg was repeatedly harassed by a co-worker, who asked to see her tattoos, hugged her and played with her hands, saying it was a "motivational good vibes exercise". He stood in her way when he knew she needed to pass by him and asked intrusive questions about her life outside of work.

After complaining to her manager, Meg was told she wasn't making required sales targets and was moved to another store. She felt unsafe, disrespected and not believed. Distraught about what had happened, she made a workers' compensation claim and at the time of lodging her sexual harassment complaint, had been off work for approximately 18 months with no prospect of a return to work in sight.

We helped Meg resolve her complaint at conciliation, with her employer and co-worker paying her general damages for the humiliation and hurt she experienced. Meg was reticent and teary when we first met her, but we built a strong rapport with her. After conciliation, Meg said she was finally feeling able to start thinking about a return to work. She thanked us not only for resolving her matter, but for the invaluable support we provided along the way that made her feel safe and respected.

Sometimes the way a complaint is responded to by an employer can exacerbate or reduce the impact of the sexual harassment.

Some unbelievable things our clients were told this year include he's just "touchy-feely", "don't be a victim", "learn to protect yourself" and he was "only joking".

Kendra, a young client, worked as a casual café worker and endured unwanted touching from her older boss. She felt uncomfortable and upset about returning to work in an environment where she was unable to speak up. After she resigned, she was contacted by a co-worker who told her he "doesn't mean anything by it" - it is because of his "old age" and "culture". We assured Kendra that there is no excuse for sexual harassment. Through conciliation at the Australian Human Rights Commission, we successfully negotiated for Kendra to be paid general damages and for the employer to create a sexual harassment policy, display posters regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, and complete sexual harassment training, which not only compensated Kendra for her experience, but created systemic change in the workplace that will hopefully benefit future employees.

Annika, another very young client, worked at a fast-food franchise. Her (much) older supervisor told her "out of anyone here, I would date you", asked her if she had a boyfriend and repeatedly stared at her at work. Annika had also received numerous complaints from younger co-workers about the supervisor's "creepy" comments and text messages. Annika complained and was forced to attend a meeting with the supervisor in question and was told to stop "gossiping". She was then offered fewer weekly shifts. We helped Annika escalate her complaint to the franchisor who took her complaint seriously. At Annika's request, we negotiated an early settlement where Annika agreed to resign (which she wanted to do) and in return she received general damages in recognition of the hurt, humiliation and distress caused by the sexual harassment and victimisation, and the franchisor agreed to conduct a formal investigation into the allegations.

Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.