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Damning new workplace report


HR is in the business of people, so make sure you think about the people behind these workplace sexual harassment statistics.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the stream of sexual harassment cases dominating media headlines. Weinstein was the bolt holding the floodgates together and since they’ve been pried open by many brave women, we’ve seen case after case after case after case.

If the facts of our current social landscape become numbing, to the point where appalling statistics become a fleeting headline, how will anything change?

How can we possibly go about our normal lives knowing that 71 per cent of Australians have been sexual harassed? Or that forty per cent of workplace cases of sexual harassment are witnessed by at least one other person, 69 per cent of which did not intervene.

The answer is, it doesn’t matter, we just have to.

Appalling statistics

These statistics come from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) recent national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. It’s the fourth time this report has been actioned – the others in 2003, 2008 and 2012 – and it surveyed 10,000 Australians representative of the working population. (This is five times more than were surveyed in previous years.)

In the 2012 survey, one third (33 per cent) of respondents reported having experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lifetime on the basis of the legal definition, compared with 43% in 2018.

“We cannot be certain if this is due to an increase in sexually harassing behaviours, or to greater awareness of the types of behaviours that constitute sexual harassment, or to other factors. What we are certain of is that this is a problem that affects millions of Australians and we, collectively, have a big job ahead to tackle the problem,” says Kate Jenkins Sex Discrimination Commissioner AHRC.

The facts about our troubled workplaces

In the last five years one in three people have experienced sexual harassment of some kind in their workplace, according to the report.

One of the AHRC’s most shocking statistics (or one more, since so much of it is shocking), was that nearly one in five of people who made a formal complaint were labelled as a “troublemaker” (19 per cent). Eighteen per cent were ostracised, victimised or ignored by colleagues and 17 percent resigned from their jobs because of someone else’s predatory behaviour.

The most common reason for not reporting sexual harassment at work was people’s concerns that they were overreacting. It’s no surprise considering that only 19 per cent of formal complaints resulted in any consequences for the perpetrator (usually just a formal warning) and 45 per cent of victims claim nothing changed as a result of them putting their neck on the line.

If you’re beginning to feel a little numb from this deluge of statistics, I feel your pain. I had to take a calming walk around the block after shifting through the 185 page report. What we’re covering here today is only the tip of the iceberg.

The most age common group to experience sexual harassment were those between 18-29. This is arguably the most important career development stage in a person’s life. You’re still figuring out the lay of the land, you’re eager to please and you’ve got a lot to prove. What’s the long term impact of this harassment – how many people’s trajectories are fundamentally altered by their experiences? How many people have quit their dream career?

While the report outlined those aged between 15-17 were “the least likely to have been sexually harassed in their lifetime”, there were 55 per cent of them who reported experiencing one or more of the 16 sexual harassment behaviours when the ‘legal’ and ‘behavioural’ definitions of sexual harassment were explained to them.

“[This] indicates that these young people have substantially lower awareness of what constitutes sexual harassment than those older than them,” the report states.

We can’t just avoid the problem and hope it goes away

Sexual harassment is most common in the media, telecommunications and information industries, according to the report. So those workplaces require extra attention.

We shouldn’t, however, act on the suggestion of journalist Jenna Price, who wrote in an op-ed for the Sydney Morning Herald: “So what advice do we give to young people in the workforce. A few things. Stay away from working in the media, in telecommunications or in information industries… it looks as if those workplaces, where work boundaries have blurred because of digital disruption, have let those same disruptive processes distort decent workplace behaviour.”

While Price is definitely fighting on the right side of the fence, the cure to workplace sexual harassment is not in discouraging young people from entering industries that will no doubt shape the future of our world (IT especially). This runs along the same lines of the “teaching girls how to not get raped, rather than teaching boys not to rape” fallacy.

We desperately need young voices in these industries. What’s the alternative for them? Stay in the safety bubble of their homes and work on their Instagram presence?

HR is here to help, not hinder

Another of Price’s points that’s hard to agree with is that “HR are not there to help you, they are there to protect the company”. She recounts listening to Jenkin’s presentation of AHRC findings at the national press club, in which Jenkin’s revealed a story of a young girl complaining to HR about sexual harassment, to which the HR manager asked what she was wearing.

This is an incredibly uneducated response from the HR manager, obviously, but it should not be representative of the profession in general. Bad HR departments do exist, but so do bad marketing, medical, and legal teams. Would we go as far as to suggest that employees shouldn’t accept legal help because of a few dodgy lawyers? Of course not.

HR’s function is to support a business, yes, but it’s the individuals that make up an organisation. It’s HR’s responsibility to help an executive team to cultivate a positive work culture and squash out anything that weighs that down, like workplace sexual harassment.

Putting aside the obvious moral reasoning for a moment, addressing sexual harassment is also much better for a business in “practical” terms. Look at Leslie Moonves’ case for example. The CEO and chairman of CBS whose alleged sexually inappropriate behaviour has been exposed by a multitude of women. It’s looking as if he will be stepping down but he’s left behind a toxic culture, is dragging his organisation’s name through the mud, and – due to his contractual arrangements –  could be leaving with millions of dollars in his back pocket. If you need to build a case around the high cost of unaddressed workplace sexual harassment, there it is.

The AHRC report is unequivocal. Australian workplaces are rife with sexual harassment. Yes, we’ve heard this before and perhaps we’re no longer shocked by it. But we should be.

First published on HRM online 14 September 2018

Kate Neilson