The hidden legal risk every organisation faces
This week, the High Court of Australia has been in the news for all the wrong reasons.
Instead of issuing announcements regarding the rights and obligations of Australians, the High Court this week has issued a public apology after an independent inquiry upheld allegations of sexual harassment perpetrated by former High Court judge Dyson Heydon. The claims, brought by a number of Mr Heydon’s former female associates, have been denied by the former judge.
The allegations, made against a person who held one of the highest legal positions in the country, is a stark reminder that harassment and bullying can occur in any workplace. And as the world has learned from the #metoo movement, all too often acts of harassment take place in workplaces where there is a culture of silence or turning a blind eye to victims. For the harassment to end, the unlawful practices need to be called out.
There are important lessons for all organisations to learn from this matter:
- Firstly, no organisation should be complacent and assume that harassment couldn’t happen in their workplace. The reality is the opposite. If you are not convinced, a confidential survey will often reveal evidence of the location and type of harassment in your organisation.
- Secondly, having a workplace policy that clearly sets out that harassment is unlawful and will not be tolerated, while critical, is itself not enough. You must ensure that every person in your organisation, in particular those with seniority and who hold powerful positions, are trained in the policy and clearly understand what conduct constitutes harassment. It is no excuse for a person to say that they didn’t intend to upset or offend someone.
- Thirdly, and very importantly, there must be a clear avenue available for victims and observers of harassment to be able to raise a complaint to an independent person, either within or outside the organisation, about the unlawful conduct.
- Finally, and critically, appropriate action must be taken in response to any such complaint to investigate it promptly, impartially and confidentially and ensure that disciplinary action is taken if warranted.
But all these steps will not result in an improved workplace unless a strong culture of calling out harassment is inspired by the leaders of the organisation. It is only through the support and guidance of leaders that such a culture is encouraged and fostered.
So don’t delay. Review the steps that your organisation has in place to deal with harassment. If they are not adequate, then move now to implement change.
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