The Respect@Work Report and the Need for Action in 2021 (by my fellow Director, Jodie Fox at Worklogic)

The Respect@Work Report was released in March of this year (which in 2020 feels like ten years ago, rather than ten months).

The report, which was the product of two year’s work, over 500 submissions, and 60 sessions of consultation across the nation, was released by the Australian Human Rights Commission and was a world first inquiry into the drivers of sexual harassment.

The report acknowledged that while Australia had started with a legislative framework that led the world in the 1980s (thanks in large part to the late, great, Susan Ryan) the benefits to workers had stagnated. One in three people reported that they had experienced sexual harassment at work, with women, young people, LGTBIQ, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers bearing the brunt of this behaviour.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins was explicit about the price that these workers pay for this harassment. In her foreword she wrote: “I have been devastated by the experiences of sexual harassment within workplaces I have heard about through this Inquiry, the harms suffered by victims and the cost to the economy”.

Despite the report, it seems that every few months in the Australian news calendar we come across another story of sexual harassment in an Australian workplace. Stories of powerful people using their position to embarrass, humiliate or offend their more junior colleagues and other powerful people turning a blind eye or covering up this behaviour are depressingly regular.

At Worklogic, we are often approached by clients who are trying to do the right thing. What, they ask, what should they do to proof their workplace against sexual harassment? Is there a training, some information, a focus group that they can put their staff through that will help? The answer is yes and no.

There are a number of proactive steps that workplaces can take to reduce the likelihood of sexual harassment of their workforce. There is however, no ‘tick and flick’ exercise that workplaces can cross of their list.

In order to be serious about preventing this drain on creativity and morale in the workplace, organisations need to have a deeper understanding of the nature of sexual harassment and do the work to address the systemic issues that may be at play in their workplace.

It’s not about sex

I suspect that reason sexual harassment stories so often make the news headlines because they contain details about other people’s (famous, powerful people!) sex lives and sex, as the saying goes, sells. The headlines and the prurient details of these cases distract from the key issue.

Very bluntly, the problem with sexual harassment is not about the sex.

Colleagues have been attracted to each other and have entered into consensual relationships together for a very long time. They will continue to do so, no matter how many ‘bonk bans’ or other types of policies outright banning this practice are in place.

At the heart of sexual harassment and the damage that it can do is power.

Where there is a power imbalance at work between participants in a sexual or romantic relationship, this relationship becomes fraught. Power imbalances mean that people may go along with a romantic or a sexual request because it is implicitly backed by the positional power bestowed by a workplace structures. Those structures can be informal such as where someone is in charge of information necessary to do your job, or part of a formal organisational reporting lines.

In other words, and with apologies to Notting Hill, when a manager asks out her direct report out for a drink, she is never ‘just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her’. Power and power structures at work are the key to sexual harassment.

For this reason, concerns about senior employees or managers ‘being allowed to have a private life’ or separating work performance from ‘sins of the flesh’ are a nonsense. Sexual harassment is an exploiting of the position of power in the workplace and the workplace is inextricably connected to it.

It’s not about complaints

Because sexual harassment is about a misuse of workplace power, if we concentrate solely on sexual harassment complaints, we are missing more than half the picture.

By the time a complaint of sexual harassment is made, the damage to morale, to careers and to workplace culture is done. Investigations into sexual harassment complaints, while necessary at times, don’t allow for a deeper understanding of the factors at play and will focus (again necessarily) on findings of whether unwanted conduct of a sexual nature occurred.

This focus on the sex risks treating sexual harassment complainants as ‘gender minefields’ to be avoided or, at worst, weaponizes the complaints of junior employees in a game of office (or regular!) politics.

It is about power

If we accept that sexual harassment is about power, then the long-term solutions to preventing sexual harassment are also based in power.

Respect@Work report made 55 Recommendations. These include recommending wholesale structural and legislative changes including the establishment of a Workplace Sexual Harassment Council to co-ordinate and guide industry response to sexual harassment reform, and the creation of a positive duty on employers to take steps to eliminate sex based discrimination and harassment as far as possible.

The Respect@Work Recommendations also acknowledged that leadership at the very top of the organization is vital for prevention of sexual harassment. It has a number of practical recommendations around culture, education and transparency that should be taken up by organisations who are serious about tackling sexual harassment and the harm it brings to the workplace.

Respect@Work in 2021

As we head into 2021 we are still waiting for a formal response from the Federal Government on Respect@Work.

This report, and the stories, and futures it represents are too important to be left behind with the rubble of 2020. The report’s recommendations, based as they are on a detailed understanding of power as the real driver for sexual harassment in the workplace deserve careful consideration and detailed response from our Federal Government.

Until that response comes, corporations must lead the way.

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